Admiring Odyssey students’ courage

Success coach Brian Benford and his therapy dog, Duke Ellington

Odyssey students this year have endured incredible hardship, from contracting COVID themselves to losing loved ones, from facing eviction notices to fleeing abusive partners, from going into early labor to being racially profiled.

As success coach Brian Benford (Odyssey ’07) puts it, “They are brave beyond words as they face housing insecurities, the lack of culturally competent physical or mental health care, the absence of sustainable living-wage jobs, domestic and intimate partner violence, gun violence and racial disparities in every facet of their lives to lay the road for a better life for themselves and their families.”

In a recent Oracle, students look back at their lives to describe moments of courage. For Ontario, just going outside as a Black man takes bravery: “Every day I leave my house it is a gamble. Courage is going to school, trying to break my generational curses and just overcoming the barriers of being Black in general.”

Sometimes we think of courage as scaling Mt. Everest or going into battle, but it can apply to everyday acts of valor.

Odyssey students reviewed a definition of courage — the ability to do something that frightens one; strength in the face of pain or grief; having the heart to face danger and hardship; from Latin for “heart” — and then applied it to themselves.

Some chose the act of applying for Odyssey. Jermaine notes that during his interview he felt like his heart dropped from his top to his bottom, and Kayanna writes that she turned her worries (“I’m not good enough,” “I’m pregnant,” “How will I pass with a baby?” “Am I smart enough?”) into the courage to believe in herself. Katrina describes conquering her fear of reading aloud in class, and Jessica and Erendira remember overcoming the challenges of speaking English as a second language in school.

Some students narrate hair-raising tales of near-death and incarceration. One achingly shares the heartache of a stillbirth. Another describes the heart-pounding moment she discovered her brother’s seemingly lifeless body after he overdosed on Percocet and she had to perform CPR on him. As students share these and other stories in the Oracle out loud in class, they form bonds with each other and take strength in each other’s extraordinary courage and honest voices.

For Odyssey success coach Brian Benford, courage shines in each Odyssey student in the Class of 2022.

“I see this year’s class as beyond courageous,” he comments. “While a pandemic is still in our midst, these students are all willing to better their lives by taking this journey. They are inspirational in their courage to not let past and current traumas define their unlimited future potentials.” Along with his therapy dog, Duke Ellington, Brian meets with students to help them find the resources and comfort they need during uncertain times.

Odyssey’s emergency funds are playing an increasingly important role in keeping families safe, fed and sheltered.

Brian observes, “In my 30 years of serving our most marginalized and vulnerable neighbors within Madison and Dane County — as an activist, family advocate, educator, organizer and current Odyssey Success Coach and City of Madison alderperson — I have never witnessed so much suffering in our communities. Spotlighted by COVID-19, centuries of systemic racism, poverty and oppression have left many of our Odyssey students in the deepest despair as they live in a tale of two cities. Madison can be the most remarkable city for those that were gifted with privilege, but for most of our students, Madison is one of the most dismal places in the United States as demonstrated by our rampant racial disparities in housing, jobs, childcare, healthcare and criminal justice system.”

Donor funds help change lives, Brian adds. “With generous support, donors can immediately change lives and offer hope by putting our students on the path to reaching their full potential through education. I know this beyond my role as the Odyssey Success Coach. You see, as an alumnus of the Odyssey Project (2007), I cannot thank Odyssey enough for positively transforming my life and the lives of my children. Because of Odyssey, I was able to go on to complete my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from UW, so that I might better serve others. Gifts to Odyssey can transform other lives, just as it has mine!”

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