Odyssey is a lifeline for grieving mother

Collage of mother Jeannine and her daughter Sydney

“Odyssey is an amazing program, a lifeline, a source of strength that keeps me going and lifts some of the weight off me.”

So said Jeannine Shoemaker, a graduate of Odyssey’s Class of 2014, now enrolled in Kevin Mullen’s UW writing course for Odyssey alumni. “I had started to take Kevin’s writing class two years ago but had to stop because of losing my daughter Sydney. She was set to graduate with honors from UW and go on to law school. Now I feel her with me as I write, encouraging me to find the strength to complete the course, to tell her story as a way of helping other families.”

Jeannine faced many obstacles prior to enrolling in the UW Odyssey Project, including raising five daughters as a single mother and overcoming physical and mental health challenges. In her graduation program entry, she credits Odyssey with helping her believe in herself: “It was the support of Emily and the Odyssey team that brought me back when I was ready to walk away from the pains of life. They showed me that I’m worth being here and that I have something to offer this world.”

A talented quilter, Jeannine shared her art with the class and used quilting as a metaphor for piecing together the fragments of her life.

Odyssey not only provided her with an educational opportunity but also a family-like support network and camaraderie. “We help heal each other from drug issues, family issues; it’s a life link to make it through every day. For me now in Kevin’s alumni composition class, I have my daughter in my head all the time because she knew I could be a writer. She’s what I write most about because she fills my heart. I hope to write a book about her. Even as a baby, she seemed to be an ‘old soul.’”

Jeannine’s daughter Sydney tragically took her own life on New Year’s Eve just a semester before her UW graduation. “She was a brilliant student, with beauty and brains. Depression is scary. It’s a silent killer. I want others to know to listen to your kids, seek help, love on them, just talk, talk, talk and reach out for help. Sydney said she knew I loved her more than she loved herself.”

In Sydney’s honor, UW organized a tribute, awarded her a posthumous degree, and placed a plaque on campus.

“The UW came out with a big heart and celebrated her life. At her ceremony, I spoke to her graduating class. I had parents that came up to me that said, ‘I have a child that’s going through this same thing right now. Thank you for having the strength to talk about your loss.’ It touched my heart. I know Odyssey helped me find my voice, and I’m going to keep on speaking out.”

In her day job, Jeannine welcomes UW students as they get their COVID vaccinations.

“At first it was hard for me to be on campus. My daughter walked these steps, these grounds. Wow, it was hard. Sometimes I’d see a student with a backpack and think for a moment it was Sydney. But I like being around the students, helping them. And then in the evening, I take my Odyssey writing class.”

Next month, Jeannine looks forward to attending a VIP reception with Yaa Gyasi, author of UW’s Go Big Read selection, Transcendent Kingdom.

“Sydney always had a book in her hands, she was always reading. Yaa Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, was one of the books she said I must read, and now I’m excited to read Transcendent Kingdom, too, which deals with keeping one’s faith even when battling incredible loss and mental illness. Odyssey provided me with copies of both books and the opportunity to meet the author, and I’m so grateful. I hope I have a chance to tell the author how impressed Sydney was with her writing.”

Jeannine calls on others to donate to Odyssey to keep being a lifeline for others.

“Supporting Odyssey will be the best gift you ever give because of how many lives Odyssey touches. Odyssey brings out brilliant gifts people don’t even know t­hey have inside themselves. Odyssey lets people know they’re smart, they matter, they can accomplish what they want and their words can speak volumes. If you look at our pictures, we all have smiles on our faces. It’s amazing how Odyssey students have transcended a situation where they had no hope, to now, where they’re giving others hope, telling them they can do this. Odyssey gave me strength and hope even in the darkest times.”

Please consider a gift to the Odyssey Project Fund to help alumni like Jeannine keep working toward a college degree.

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