Skip to main content

BEACON Senior News

Learning knows no limits: Seniors are students at the PILLAR Institute

Apr 27, 2024 09:32AM ● By Tom Hess & Rhonda Wray

It’s PILLAR Institute of Lifelong Learning’s silver anniversary—so in the true PILLAR spirit of teachable moments, silver is a chemical element with symbol Ag and atomic number 47, and this transition metal is a solid at room temperature.

Even if chemistry isn’t your forte, PILLAR offers over 300 lifelong learning opportunities yearly. Though there’s no age limit on who can take a class, retirees with more time comprise most of PILLAR’s students. 

Vickie Heffner, Executive Director at the PILLAR Institute, and Sandra (Sandy) Halby, Operations Assistant.

“There’s no homework, no tests and no papers,” said Executive Director Vickie Heffner, 66. “Just learning for the fun of it!”

Heffner has guided PILLAR for a decade, through tremendous growth and change.

After being a member and volunteer instructor, Sandy Halby, 67, has served as operations assistant for seven years. They’re a team that builds on each other’s strengths to give students like Jenny Trejo, 81, a stellar experience.

“I love learning,” said Trejo. “The lectures instructors give are amazing—on every subject. The speakers are at the peak of their knowledge.” 

Margaret Nestor, 60+, concurs. “The people that teach are highly certified, with multiple degrees and successful professional lives,” she said.


Most classes are one-day, two-hour sessions, with a few running two to three weeks. Preregistration is required.

Of the many courses that PILLAR offers, geopolitics is PILLAR’s number-one subject, with history a close second. It’s offered every term due to its popularity.  

Geopolitics covers headline news from international conflicts—Russia’s war against Ukraine, North Korean missile tests over Japan or rising tensions between the U.S. and China.

“It helps to understand the greater world and not just our little piece of it in the U.S.,” Heffner said. 

Students are actively engaged, not just passive listeners. Instructor Jim Poole, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado, expects the class to be “interactive,” but with “no yelling, no screaming, no hair pulling,” because geopolitics is not a partisan discussion. It’s the rational analysis of international affairs through geography, demographics, climate, culture, history and access to natural resources.

Poole learned to think this way by working in base metals in the American southeast, and later with Continental Bank, who has the largest mining portfolio of any bank in America.

“In base metals you talk about geopolitics all the time, because the price of your metal is a function of what somebody else is doing in another country,” Poole said. 


Field trips are occasionally offered. 

Nestor was introduced to PILLAR when a friend needed a roommate for a PILLAR train trip to Chicago.

Halby attended an art history class on impressionism with a trip to the Denver Art Museum. PILLAR also took students downtown on a tour of Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, built in 1923, to appreciate its architecture, stained-glass windows and music.

Even without trips, you’ll feel as if you’ve traveled, thanks to riveting explorations of a wide range of topics.

For instance, one class delves into “fantasy coffins” from Ghana, which are collectors’ items featuring intricate designs that represent the deceased’s profession, vices or dreams. 

Halby taught a class on James Bond, exploring both the books and movies featuring the iconic British spy, to celebrate the character’s 60th anniversary. 

Other topics in the ever-changing course offerings include cardiac health, mah jongg, jazz and discussions on end-of-life issues.


Heffner, who holds a master’s degree in library science and a master’s certificate in executive nonprofit leadership, was unprepared for the sudden need to transition PILLAR’s interactive lectures to Zoom when COVID forced her hand. However, everything operates seamlessly today, and some classes are still offered via Zoom. 

Heffner prefers that students meet in person, as socializing is one of PILLAR’s three main goals, alongside learning and volunteering. These activities collectively help stave off dementia. 

Volunteers, who range in age from 60 to 80, with one even in her 90s, manage a variety of roles. All volunteers must be proficient in using a computer. 

“I practically lived at PILLAR before COVID,” Nestor said, reflecting on her own volunteering. 

Members who volunteer may attend classes for free, as can instructors.

“It’s good for them to see how other people teach,” Heffner said.


PILLAR was inspired by Elderhostel (now known as Road Scholar). It was initially established as the Peak Institute of Living, Learning and Rejuvenation in collaboration with Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC). Its first term in 1999 featured nine classes. 

Following leadership changes at PPCC (now Pikes Peak State College), PILLAR became an independent nonprofit in 2001. It’s the only learning institute of its kind in the Pikes Peak Region and Southern Colorado, offering a range of liberal arts and science classes specifically designed for adults.

After discussions with the board, PILLAR relocated to The Resource Exchange building on Corporate Drive in December 2023, following the expiration of their lease at Chapel Hills Mall.

“The mall was really good until the pandemic,” Heffner said. 

PILLAR could no longer afford the large space, and with the mall shortening its hours, scheduling the morning classes preferred by students became impossible. 

In their new location, “we don’t have to clean, there’s free coffee everywhere—our students love their coffee—and restrooms and parking are close,” said Heffner.

Co-sharing the building means they don’t have to worry about repairs or maintenance. Additionally, this arrangement has received the students’ stamp of approval.

“Our people love it,” Heffner said. 

As PILLAR approaches its 25th anniversary, Heffner is optimistic about its continued growth and the expansion of lifelong learning opportunities throughout the community for those who are perpetually eager to learn, listen and stay curious. 

“I worried when I retired—what will I do?” recalled Jeri Ebbink, 66. “More people should take advantage of PILLAR. People are never at the end of learning.” 

PILLAR is located at 6385 Corporate Drive, Suite 200. To find out more, call 719-633-4991 or visit


  • 3 class catalogs are issued yearly for the 3 terms: January-April, May-August, September-DecembeR
  • 10:10 a.m.-12 p.m. is the typical class start/end time.
  • 5-20 participants make up most classes.
  • 200+ volunteers, 80 of whom are instructors, teach and organize classes.
  • $100 buys you a 12-month PILLAR membership.
  • $25 per class is the members’ fee. It’s $40 for non-members. 

Sign up for our Newsletter

* indicates required
I am a/n...