UW Odyssey Project raises record amount to help transform lives

November 7, 2019 By Lisa Bauer
Three people talk together.

Emily Auerbach, director of the Odyssey Project, center, talks with attendees at the charity gala. Photo by Hedi LaMarr Photography

The award-winning UW–Madison Odyssey Project can claim another accolade.

They set a fundraising record at the Madison Club’s annual Charity Gala, raising more than $200,000 to provide educational access to adults living at the poverty level and wraparound services to empower them and their families to transform their lives.

Photo: Keena Atkinson speaks.

Keena Atkinson has a degree and a business of her own, and she credits the Odyssey Project for helping her achieve that.

“Odyssey is an expression of the Wisconsin Idea, where education is accessible to all citizens and learners,” said UW–Madison Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning and Dean of Continuing Studies Jeff Russell. “By allowing access, Odyssey creates a transformative learning experience for the students, their families, and the community at large.”

On November 2, a sold-out crowd of nearly 250 supporters, students, staff and alumni gathered to enjoy dinner, bid on silent auction items, and hear from a slate of inspirational speakers, each of whom got a standing ovation. The Madison Club Charitable Foundation’s Charity Gala recognizes and promotes a new local charity each year. They’ve raised $1.2 million over the past 14 years.

“We thank the Madison Club and their charitable foundation for this amazing opportunity,” said Emily Auerbach, Odyssey director.

One of the evening’s most stirring speakers was Odyssey graduate Keena Atkinson, who said, “When Emily interviewed me for the Odyssey Project, she didn’t know I was homeless and sleeping on the bathroom floor of a barbershop with my 4-year-old son to stay warm. The barber was an Odyssey alum and encouraged me to apply. Now I have a bachelor’s degree from UW and businesses of my own, including managing housing for others where once I was homeless.”

Auerbach added, “My favorite quote is, ‘The Odyssey Project helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life,’ and Keena’s a great example of how our students come into the program with gifts they may not even know they have, find their voice, and change the world.”

Photo: Corey Saffold speaks.

Corey Saffold, now a Madison police officer, says he found his voice through the Odyssey Project. Now his daughter attends it.

Odyssey graduate Corey Saffold spoke powerfully on his experience: “Before Odyssey I didn’t feel I was smart, I didn’t feel confident. While in Odyssey I wrote an editorial called ‘Education Should Trump Prison Time,’ and it was published in the Wisconsin State Journal and responded to by then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. I started to realize I had a voice. After becoming a Madison police officer and serving as a speaker for the Wisconsin Humanities Council on the paradox of being a black police officer, I know that this voice I have, this power to believe in myself, I owe it all to the Odyssey Project.”

Corey’s 22-year-old daughter now attends Odyssey, and his 5-year-old grandson is in Odyssey Junior. As Auerbach said in her remarks, “Odyssey has a life-changing power and a multi-generational impact.”

As the evening’s final speaker, the Honorable Reverend Everett Mitchell left everyone inspired and moved by sharing his own rocky journey to literacy. He compared Auerbach’s belief in her Odyssey students to the way two black women saw his potential as a child, their faces lighting up at his presence. A Dane County circuit court judge and senior pastor, Mitchell started the evening’s donation portion off with his own generous contribution to what he called the transformational power of the Odyssey Project.

The 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. Now in its 17th year, Odyssey has empowered more than 450 low-income adults and 150 of their children and grandchildren to find their voices and reimagine their futures.

Photo: Everett Mitchell speaks.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell praised the transformational power of the Odyssey Project.

The program includes a six-credit UW English literature course introducing adults to great works of literature, philosophy, history, and art and helping them improve skills in writing, reading comprehension, and critical thinking. In class, students read, write about, and engage in lively discussions of Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Lorraine Hansberry, and many more.

As Odyssey graduate Brian Benford remarked in a short video shown at the gala, “Odyssey is just an amazing program and installed in me validation that I could be a lifelong learner.”