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“Everybody in here is a seed.” UW Odyssey Project hosts 20th Anniversary Celebration

Keena Atkinson with son, Kaleb Atkinson, age 8, at the UW Odyssey Project's 20th Anniversary Celebration (Photo by Hedi Rudd)

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Odyssey Project rounded out its 20th year with an anniversary celebration on the evening of April 20 in anticipation of graduating another class of amazing students next month. The celebration was held in the Chazen Museum of Art in the heart of the UW-Madison campus and the event was filled with R&B music from KinFolk Soul Music Madison, socializing, inspirational speeches, and recognition for both the hardworking students and the dedicated Odyssey family.

Emily Auerbach, executive director and co-founder of the Odyssey Project, gives opening remarks at the Odyssey Project’s 20th-anniversary celebration at the Chazen Museum. (Photo by Hedi Rudd)

Emily Auerbach, Odyssey executive director and co-founder, kicked off remarks for the evening by giving thanks to sponsors, staff, and supporters. “Most of all,” Auerbach said, “I want to thank our amazingly gifted and resilient students. We have Odyssey students here tonight representing all 20 years of the program.”

The UW Odyssey Project takes a whole family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, giving adult and youth learners a voice, and increasing confidence through reading, writing, and speaking. The Odyssey Project was co-founded by Auerbach and Jean Feraca with Auerbach’s parents in mind, who were able to overcome poverty through education.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway gave a proclamation declaring April 20th as “Odyssey Day” in the city of Madison in recognition of the amazing work done by the project to provide education, opportunity, and support to adult students as well as their children and grandchildren. 

UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin spoke to the crowd about the persistence and perseverance of Odyssey students, praising the effort and commitment to reaching success for themselves.

UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin (far left, with red scarf) with Odyseey staff, students and supporters (Photo by Hedi Rudd)

“Every Odyssey graduate has a story of a long walk and some substantial barriers that they have overcome, even barriers that sometimes seemed nearly insurmountable,” said Mnookin. “Of course, Odyssey isn’t what’s removing those barriers for students. What it’s doing is helping people develop the resources, the inner strength, and the perspective so that they’re able to find ways around or through it or beyond it themselves.”  

Judge and Pastor Everett Mitchell, a longtime supporter of the Odyssey Project, spoke about his own journey from struggling in education to eventually serving as a role model for young Black children while serving as a judge.

Judge Everett Mitchell (Photo by Hedi Rudd)

The power of education does not act independently, however, as Anthony Ward from the Odyssey class of 04’ reminded both students and supporters alike that they already had the power within them. 

“I will just tell you real quickly what Odyssey was to me,” Ward explained. “Everybody in here is a seed. If you know anything about seeds, they have everything that they need inside of them to become whatever they’re going to become. They just need to be put in the right environment. Odyssey is that environment, and Odyssey was that environment for me. Everything that we needed to be who we are was already inside of us. We just needed to be in the right environment.” 

Corey Saffold (Photo by Hedi Rudd)

Corey Saffold, from the Odyssey class of ’06, also spoke to the power of Odyssey in encouraging students to continue pushing themselves and others towards education and opportunity as Odyssey has become a multi-generational program that also looks to support children of students, imprisoned adult students, senior adults students, and adult student veterans as a piece of Odyssey Beyond Wars.

Odyssey staff such as Kevin Mullen, director of adult education, and Jean Feraca, co-founder of Odyssey, also spoke to the importance and expansive nature of the project as Feraca gave a touching recital of the Odyssey Class of 2023 song inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and the diverse experiences and background present in the Odyssey class. Brian Benford, a graduate of the Odyssey program, is exemplary of the continuation of achievement through Odyssey as he came back to serve as a success coach with the Odyssey family, providing support to current Odyssey students. 

Brian Benford (Photo by Hedi Rudd)

“Before I joined Odyssey, I had given up hope. I had given up hope that I could ever reach my full potential through education,” said Benford, an Odyssey Class of 07’ alumnus whose journey eventually led to him working with Odyssey and, very recently, serving as a City of Madison alder. 

“Over the years, I had to choose between keeping food on the table or taking classes. While navigating all the barriers and obstacles in my way, I always had the love and support of my Odyssey family. They always inspired me and because of Odyssey I was able to go on and get a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in social work.”  

Keena Atkinson closed out the evening with an inspirational and captivating performance of a poem titled “Jounrey to the Journey.” (Photo by Hedi Rudd)

2015 Odyssey graduate Keena Atkinson closed out the evening with an inspirational and captivating performance of a poem she wrote titled “Journey to the Journey.” The poem provided the perfect closure for the evening as themes of overcoming obstacles, affirming self-worth and potential, and continuing to grow and prove doubters wrong echoed throughout the space.

“Keena says at the end of her poem, ‘I won’t stop the journey,’ and neither will we,” Auerbach said to close out the event. “Odyssey has expanded to include Onward Odyssey, Odyssey Junior, Odyssey Senior, Odyssey Beyond Bars in Wisconsin prisons and the upcoming Odyssey Beyond Wars for Wisconsin veterans.

“It’s literally ‘Odyssey for Life’ as we currently work with newborns in Baby Badgers up to a 91-year-old in Odyssey Senior.”

If the support, love, and dedication present at the 20th-anniversary celebration suggest anything, it is that the UW-Madison Odyssey Project will surely continue to change lives and inspire for 20 more years and beyond.