13th annual ceremony May 4 launches new batch of talent into college community
by Pamela Gates
Tamara Thompson Moore was at a crossroads in her life when she was pressured, she says, to apply for the Odyssey Project. Like many of this year’s grads, she knew people who had gone through the program and was familiar with its quality. A counselor at the Parental Stress Center long ago encouraged her to consider her own goals in life, as well as the needs of her children. At last she has done that.
Back in September, with 26 classmates, Moore began the UW Odyssey Project, a rigorous English literature course for people with limited financial means and, often, severe personal challenges. The class met for three hours every Wednesday evening in the Villager Mall, next to the Goodman South Madison Library, studying Socrates, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Emily Dickinson, and many others under the direction of a team of UW-Madison professors. Moore and her fellow students wrote many essays and poems inspired by these writers, and each chose one of his or her own pieces to read at graduation. Moore read hers, an homage to her ancestors, stunningly dressed in African garb.
Moore and her fellow graduates each earned six UW credits, which they will apply toward a degree if they go on with their college education. And many do. Among its graduates, Odyssey counts bachelor’s and master’s degrees. As Director Emily Auerbach says, Odyssey helps its participants feel “empowered to overcome adversity, achieve dreams, and change the world … [G]raduates … work in the community as substance abuse counselors, ministers, police officers, nurses, family advocates, and teachers. We have alumni who have published chapbooks, performed shows, hosted bilingual radio shows, and won awards for community activism.”
The sense of empowerment Odyssey instills in its students is remarkable. As grad Jelissa Williams put it, “We all need A CHANCE to make it right or prove ourselves. Emily gave me that chance.” She added, “Every classmate had their own demons that they were battling, but we got through our hardships, whether outside or inside the classroom, as a family.”
Odyssey relies on a whole community of caring folks to carry out its mission. Auerbach, assistant director Kevin Mullen, Marshall Cook, Gene Phillips, Jean Feraca, and Craig Werner are the instructors. There are tutors and classroom aides, groups that donate meals, child care workers, and donors of funds. “So many people volunteered their time, money, food, and effort to make sure that we all have a second chance,” grad Ashley Wills said. “… I can’t say enough about Odyssey, for it has changed my whole heart.”
Introduced in January 2015 is Odyssey Junior, an enrichment program for children and grandchildren of Odyssey students. Moore said her five kids absolutely loved Odyssey Junior, which takes place in three classrooms divided by age. “The kids’ minds were engaged; they were even learning writing skills, and got exposed to poetry and art. They met peers from Mexico, Iraq, and Madison in a welcoming atmosphere and weren’t afraid to speak up; they could say what they think and it’d be OK.
“I’ve never seen them be so expressive before,” Moore added. “The socialization was a tremendous benefit. My kids are totally different at Odyssey [than in their regular school classrooms].”
Moore describes Odyssey as a firing gun that starts a race or an opening door. She has a day job at Uniek Inc. in Waunakee and otherwise describes herself as a community activist. She’s a doula and a lactation counselor for the African American Breastfeeding Alliance, where she facilitates support groups. She loves the work, but it’s not easy to find a career in it.
“Choosing my major will be my next project,” she says. “Maybe something medical? African American Studies?” She’d like to write on the history of midwifery in the African American community, where midwives have historically been highly respected.
“Birth was a community thing,” she says, noting that that legacy has almost ceased to exist and expressing concern about the African American infant mortality rate.
Each graduate wrote a statement that was included in the graduation program. Moore’s statement sums up a thoughtful, committed attitude that has been burnished by the commitment of the Odyssey Project to her, her classmates, and all the graduates of the previous 12 years. She wrote, in part:
“A special place in my heart has been carved out for each of my classmates. Your stories … helped me grow as a person. You are all responsible for my new humanity.
“I’m here today because of my ancestors. I humbly respect and love those who I have descended from as much as those who have descended from me. Thank you.
“Something about pressure is amazing; pressure is responsible for transforming coal into diamonds. “Let me be thankful for that, too.”
Gratitude and hope
Classmate Arkeshia Sallay expressed her appreciation in words that echo down through the years of the Odyssey Project, spoken in many different ways but giving essentially the same message:
“Odyssey gave me hope, inspiration, and goals to reach. Odyssey was my light guiding me through the dark where I couldn’t see. Odyssey motivated and excited me and gave me back my passion that had been slowly slipping out of me. Odyssey gave me life. It never gave up on me, for I will never give up on Odyssey.”
For more information on the UW Odyssey Project, visit www.odyssey.wisc.edu. New students must apply by July 1. Volunteers and donations are always needed.