Pieces of crumpled magazines would fill the pockets of Avé Thorpe’s book bag. On any given day, she’d find a torn-out bit of paper with a picture of a wedding gown or a nice car or a sunny beach. Sometimes she’d dig it out of the bottom of her backpack. Sometimes, out of the back of her locker. They were casually strewn around her room.
“Kind of like a deconstructed vision board,” she remembers.
Celebrity, travel, business and women’s health magazines filled a big bowl in her living room. It sat next to an old brown chair, weathered from years of Avé’s mother’s smoking and reading habit.
Avé, 35, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, an area riddled with gun violence, gang activity and drug abuse. Her mother worked, her father had taken off years before, and her older siblings, 10 and 13 years older, had moved on with their lives, away from the poverty and violence they grew up in.
“I had a lot of anger. Anger and resentment because it seemed as though, back then, everybody else’s life was so beautiful,” she says. “Like all of my friends, and the stuff they had, like a two-parent home...like nice homes, even though we all lived in the ghetto. They still had video games and new shoes. I didn’t.”
At 13, Avé got her first job as an office assistant at a church. The other kids would be there too, gathering for choir practice or studying for Bible classes. But Avé stayed hidden, making copies and filing papers in the office.
She thought maybe she’d be a doctor — her auntie was a nurse, who had gone on to teach in North Carolina.
“It was just so prestigious,” she says. “I wanted to do something powerful and do something great that would just make people say, ‘Oh my God.’”
Emily Auerbach, like Avé, understands that desire for prestige. Emily’s parents, Wanda and Robert, grew up in poverty. Wanda was raised in a small town in Tennessee, in a house with no running water. She would walk miles in her hand-me-down clothes to get to the library. Robert escaped Nazi Germany with his family, eventually settling in New York.
Emily’s parents met at Berea College in Kentucky, a tuition-free institution.
“Both my parents worked really hard to get where they got,” Emily says. “But they needed that [educational] opportunity. It wouldn’t have been enough for them just to work hard.”
Her parents taught her to read and appreciate literature. And they taught her to give back. So she gave back by teaching. She taught creative writing in prisons, remedial writing classes to Native Americans. She eventually became an English professor at UW-Madison.
But it wasn’t enough. She’d think from time to time about the opportunity her parents had been given. She’d think about what they would have done had they not had the chance to go to college, learn about music and literature. How would their lives have turned out?
“It changed the destiny of our whole family,” she says. “You open the door for somebody, and their entire family starts to change, too.”
Emily wanted to open doors for people. She just had to figure out how. Emily’s mission to help others and Avé’s desire to make more of her life would one day bring the two together.
Stuck inside, hiding from the bitter cold of January in Chicago, Avé was pregnant with her first child, a daughter she would name Javé. She was 18 and just out of high school. Her mother was clear: “You’re having a baby, you need to do something — and you can’t stay here.”
Avé sat in that weathered brown couch, reeking from her mom’s cigarette smoke. Mindlessly, she picked up an issue of Money magazine. The first article she saw: “10 Best Places to Raise Your Children.” Madison was ranked at the top.
“It didn’t hit me until after I had the baby.... I have a good memory like that, too,” she says. “Like when the time is right, things just come back to me. It clicked that I needed to leave.”
Avé set her sights on Madison. It stayed in the back of her mind for a year, while she continued to live at her mother’s house, working office jobs. A year of more crumpled-up magazine pages, with pictures of kids’ toys and playgrounds and swing sets now in the mix. By August 2001, she and her baby’s father, a local drug dealer named Harold, were expecting a second child, a boy she’d name Jerry.
But Avé had had enough of this life; Madison couldn’t wait any longer. She took her 15-month old daughter and moved to the Salvation Army homeless shelter on East Washington Avenue.
“I’ve always been strong-minded and able to do my own thing,” she says. “I think it was that I wanted so much more and I didn’t know how to get it. I knew that I didn’t want to do it in a bad way.”
The same year, not far from the shelter, Emily was working at Wisconsin Public Radio. Her co-worker, Jean Feraca, had proposed an idea — start a free college course for adults living in poverty.
The idea came about when Feraca hosted Earl Shorris on her radio show. Years earlier, Shorris had started a program in New York called the Clemente Course for the Humanities.
“It was taking adults living under the poverty level and exposing them to some great work, you know, literature, philosophy,” says Emily. “His thesis was about a transformation of self that would begin to break down the cycle of poverty just by changing their view of themselves and the world around them.”
It made Emily think about her parents and what they had gone through to get an education. But she knew it would be hard work. And she saw problems with the Clemente course, which at the time limited applicants to those under 35 and gave college credits through Bard College, a private school in upstate New York.
Even the book that Shorris had written — Riches for the Poor — offended Emily. “That title just bothered me. It sort of implies, like, here we come with our Plato and Shakespeare, you lucky poor people,” she says. “It isn’t a mutual, reciprocal, human aspiration kind of thing.”
So she and Feraca and created their own course with an emphasis on multicultural writers and historians. She needed funding, a building, volunteer teachers and childcare services for students. And she needed to convince UW-Madison to accredit the class.
But she had a name: the Odyssey Project.
Avé Thorpe (left) and Emily Auerbach review a Shakespeare assignment.
A week after Avé moved into the Salvation Army in 2001, the shelter secured her a job at the Madison post office. Two weeks later, she gave birth to her son. A week after that, the shelter found her an apartment.
Avé, then 20, 15-month-old Javé and 5-day-old Jerry moved into their first Madison home. “It was pretty nice but it was on Allied Drive,” she says of the neighborhood known for drug activity and crime — the kind of neighborhood she’d fled. She didn’t stay long. The shelter later placed her in Southridge Village on Fish Hatchery Road.
Working at the Milwaukee Street post office was taxing. She was there, dutifully, every day from 3 to 11 a.m. — even though she had given birth just a week earlier — while her dad, who had come back into her life, took care of the children.
“You had to stand up all night, and I had just had a baby and was bleeding heavily,” she says. “A lot of aches and pains. I didn’t realize you had to sit down when you have a baby, for at least six weeks. But I just had him in the shelter and moved with him being 5 days old. Not knowing anyone here.... It was really hard.”
And her old life was catching up to her. Harold had followed her to Madison, moving in with her by October. He wanted to be there for her and their kids. But it quickly became apparent that he was a threat.
“It started with a few smacks here and there, but it didn’t escalate until after he got here in Madison,” she says. “He wanted to come here and sell drugs. [My children] cannot be around that. So, I wouldn’t let him.”
A neighbor who lived on the floor above theirs called the police on Harold one night, after hearing him abusing Avé, yelling at her, hitting her and pushing her against the wall. He went to jail, and Avé got a restraining order.
“Where we’re from, that’s like the ultimate betrayal if you testify against somebody or press charges,” she says. “He backed off and left me alone and got this kind of hatred for me. I never had to think about it again.”
She quit her job at the post office and began to work at the Veterans Hospital Call Center. Now, she’d wake up at 5 a.m., make breakfast for the kids — “something healthy, like oatmeal” — get them dressed and be out the door by 6:30 to drop them off at daycare by 7:15. By 7:40 a.m., she would catch the bus so she could be at the call center by 9.
She’d take her seat on the bus, exhale, close her eyes. A short-lived, hourlong period of silence, stillness. Sometimes she’d catch up on sleep. Other times, she’d read magazines, tearing out scraps with pictures that made her smile — colorful kids’ bedrooms, houses with big backyards, swing sets and trampolines.
In spring 2006, Avé met Donald through a friend. Everyone called him Lil’ Don. He made Avé smile, he was nice to Javé and Jerry. He always seemed to have a lot of money, so he’d buy them gifts, and hand the kids $100 bills. “He’s more gentle [than Harold],” says Avé. “But he’s still a street person.”
“He says he has a recording studio,” Avé says with a laugh. “That’s what he claims. I don’t know. I think he’s still selling drugs and stuff like that.”
Avé and Donald had two kids together — Donyé was born in 2007 and Donielle in 2008.
In early 2002, Emily took her Odyssey Project idea to the Wisconsin Humanities Council, a nonprofit that provides grants and support to programs and research. She wanted to teach the humanities to people who might not have otherwise been exposed to them. She’d hold discussion-based classes, and students would read Shakespeare and study philosophy. They’d read about women in literature.
Outside the Humanities Council, the program was met with skepticism by many. “There was a stereotypical notion about what poor adults could — maybe should — and couldn’t or shouldn’t do,” Emily says. One woman suggested she hold an “Is college for you?” workshop first in south Madison — Emily was insulted. It suggested, inherently, that college wasn’t for them.
The program was hard to sell, in part, because the Clemente Course at the time hadn’t been all that successful. It had done great in New York, but in cities across the country, the dropout rate was almost 50 percent. One program in Milwaukee shut down after two years because it ran out of funding and was only graduating about 12 students a year. (The Clemente Course has since been more successful and won the National Humanities Medal in 2014.)
Emily and her co-workers spent two years applying for grants, looking for funding sources and hashing out logistics, including how to provide childcare and secure college credits. Slowly, interest trumped the skepticism. She set up a display with brochures at the public library in south Madison. They got far more students than they bargained for. Almost 100 people applied.
She accepted 30 students, hoping to get at least 15 through the program. In September 2003, the first Odyssey Project class was held in the Harambee Center in Villager Mall.
The first day, she set up the tables in a rectangle around the room, so that everyone could see each other. She stood in the center of the room, and decided to open with a story. A co-worker of hers had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Distraught, the woman tried to commit suicide, but ended up at UW Hospital. Emily went to visit her — the walls were beige, monitors were all around, and the nurse told her, “We’re doing everything we can.”
“Well, no, you’re not,” Emily thought. There was nothing in that room that would make somebody want to live. She posed a question to the class: If that were their friend, what would they bring to the room?
Kegan Carter (right, with Auerbach) graduated from the first Odyssey class in 2004 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English from UW (pictured here at graduation), and a master’s in Afro-American Studies.
Every year since, Emily’s posed that same question to her class. And every year since, she gets the same responses: photos, music, good stories, movies.
“And then I said, ‘Yeah, you probably wouldn’t bring an algebra textbook, but you’re glad that the doctor knows the math and that the engineers who made the machines know what they’re doing,’” she says. “But when you look at that stuff, it doesn’t feel like living. That’s the importance of the humanities.”
She based the curriculum on that notion that the humanities make life more colorful. She didn’t want to teach another humdrum workshop on life skills or resume-building. Her students would learn about history. They’d learn creative writing, and they’d learn about different styles of music. They’d discuss Plato along with their own philosophies, their own poetry.
By 2014, Avé’s life in Madison was starting to look like the dream she’d had in 1999 gazing at that Money magazine article. She had a job as a help line advocate for Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, an emergency shelter for domestic abuse victims in Dane County
She didn’t worry about being re-victimized herself — Harold was in prison for selling heroin, and Lil’ Don barely came around. Still, something was missing.
But making ends meet was still a struggle. “It [all] comes with a great price. I have to be tired all the time, or stressed out, or stressing over where to get money,” she says. “You can’t provide a good life for your kids unless you’re cooking three meals a day. That’s what they depend on. It has to be a good, home-cooked meal. I’m constantly looking for a second job or to babysit or just something to pick up that extra money.”
She makes about $2,200 a month from DAIS. Her rent for a two-bedroom apartment that barely fits the five of them is $976 a month, but she usually has to pay a $35 late fee. That leaves her around $1,100 for other bills and food.
In June 2016 Avé saw an article on Facebook about a friend of a friend who had gone through an educational program as a poor single mother. The woman graduated from the program, and later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
On a whim, Avé applied to the same program, the Odyssey Project. She reported her income, her goals in life. She told them about how she wanted to help people — maybe becoming a teacher or a nurse. She proved her literacy, and provided proof that she had her GED. At the interview, she met a woman whom she describes as fiercely passionate about her work.
The woman’s name was Emily. Avé told Emily that she was really shy — but that she loved to write. She told her about her four kids, and how she wanted to provide for them. She told her she was scared, but fighting.
A few months later, in August 2016, Emily called applicants for the program’s 14th year. Some calls were easy — telling people they’d been accepted. Others were hard. Telling someone they didn’t get in is never easy. Emily gives them a $250 voucher to take classes at Madison College, and tells them to apply again next year.
The call to Avé was an easy one. News of acceptance scared Avé — she hadn’t gone to school in years. But she was ready for a change. The Odyssey Project would take her one step closer to bringing those torn-out magazine images to life.
“I feel like there’s a moral responsibility as far as having an education,” says Avé. “And the plan that I’ve tried, it has not worked. So I’ve got to try something different.”
Of the 30 students accepted each year in the Odyssey Project, all but one or two graduate. The reason their graduation rate is so high, Emily says, is simple: She doesn’t let people drop out.
Avé Thorpe (far left) and Emily Auerbach look at writing, art and photos by Avé’s children (left to right) Don’ielle, 7; Don’yé, 9; Jerry, 15; Javé, 17.
In 14 years, Emily has missed only two classes — one when her mother died, and another when her daughter was undergoing major surgery. One year, one of her students stole a car and went to prison. She sent him his homework every week, and he graduated with the rest of the class. Another year, Emily brought homework to a student who was hospitalized.
“We have an emergency fund for rent if someone is about to lose their place or for gas for the car if someone is stranded on their way to get here,” Emily says.
Every Wednesday evening, Avé leaves work, and heads to the South Madison Partnership building with her kids, who attend the free Odyssey classes for students’ kids and grandkids — Odyssey Junior. On a gloomy October evening, Avé arrives around 5 p.m. to take part in a free dinner. While the other students chat, Avé keeps to herself, catching up on assignments.
The evening’s gray skies and drizzle finally give way to a loud thunderstorm, which rages outside during class. But all 30 students are there.
They had been assigned to write their own life mottos. A teacher reads a few out loud. “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed….” And a chorus of “yeahs” and “mm-hmms” goes around the room. Avé leaves every Wednesday night feeling invigorated: “Every class I feel like is the best class we’ve had so far.”
When she graduates in May, she’ll join a network of around 400 other Odyssey alumni. College still feels far off, but not quite as far as it was back in 1999, when she had a newborn and dreamed about moving to a place she had never been to. Now, she says, it’s a little closer, a little easier to picture. After finishing the Odyssey program, she will have an automatic six credits transferable to any college.
“I do want to go to college,” she says. “[But] I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ve had dreams of owning my own daycare. I think about maybe being a nurse, and I want to be a writer too. I want to tell about the story that I have.”
Every now and then, she thinks about those old magazine articles, probably still strewn about her old bedroom in Chicago. Her torn-out scraps of paper moved from the pockets of her backpack to her computer, where she still collects them on Pinterest.
But they aren’t just dreams anymore, she says. Now, they’re more like ideas. Now, they seem real.
This article has been corrected to note that the Odyssey Project is in its 14th year, not its 15th. Some comments have been slightly changed for clarity.