When Barbara Bloom founded Mt. Airy Learning Tree in her neighborhood in 1981, the community education program offered just 17 courses and enrolled 125 students.
These days, MALT classes number in the hundreds and MALT participants in the thousands. The 2016 spring catalog was 75 pages long and offered 240 classes in 158 zip codes in and around northwest Philadelphia.
Bloom, who now lives in Chestnut Hill, says the name came from the autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” by photographer, composer and filmmaker Gordon Parks.
MALT was intended to create affordable community education that would bring diverse residents together through common interests. “We had the idea that we all could learn from each other, and in doing that, our community would benefit,” Bloom said. “The Mt. Airy Learning Tree has long surpassed that goal.”
Among the first class offerings were “Introduction to Personal Computing,” “Electronic Games,” “Railroads and Mt. Airy” and “Women as Super-Heroes in the Comics.” This fall, the range of classes isn’t that different: “How to Fix Your Toilet,” “Make Your Own Hard Cider” and “Buddhist Philosophy and Ethics.”
MALT classes have changed many lives over the years.
Marianne Roche, 67, of Oreland, was looking to expand her interests as she approached retirement after working with people with disabilities. Through MALT, she began to explore holistic practices. She has since become certified in acupressure, reiki and reflexology and has been able to use her new skills with her current clients. “MALT has changed my life and I am forever grateful,” Roche said.
Allyson Bennett of Elkins Park took MALT’s rowing class on the Schuylkill River many years ago and conquered her fear of the open water. Since then, she has completed 17 triathlons in rivers, bays and oceans. “Taking the rowing class at MALT led me to places I never would have imagined,” Bennett said.
“MALT is an organization that brings together all that is positive in life,” said Executive Director Judy Weinstein. “ Teachers that are eager to share their skills and students are excited about learning new things. As our world becomes more divided, MALT brings diverse people together around common interests. . . . In 35 years, the Mt. Airy Learning Tree has helped 100,000 people expand their understanding of hundreds of topics. We’re proud to have been the conduit for learning for so many in the community.”
This month, MALT will mark its 35th anniversary by honoring its founder in a celebration Sunday, Sept. 25, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Chestnut Hill Meeting House, 20 E. Mermaid Lane. There will be live entertainment, raffles, balloon sculpting, birthday cake, a photo booth and more. All are welcome; the cost is $5 per person.
For a list of fall classes or to learn more about the 35th anniversary celebration, go to www.mtairylearningtree.org.