Generous major donors secure $3 million for UW Odyssey Project endowment to address inequities

Emily Auerbach standing next to her parents smiling, in front of pictures of students

It takes a village to create hope for the future. In the midst of challenging times, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Odyssey Project has secured funding to ensure the future of Odyssey. The endowment will support Odyssey’s transformational work in breaking the cycle of generational poverty and addressing racial and economic inequities in Madison through access to education.

The UW–Madison Odyssey Project staff, students, instructors and alumni are grateful for a village of generous donors who raised $1.5 million, matched by John and Tashia Morgridge, to create an Odyssey endowment totaling $3 million. With these new gifts, the Odyssey Project will create a distinguished chair named in memory of Odyssey Director Emily Auerbach’s mother, Wanda Auerbach (pictured above, center), who made it out of dire poverty in Appalachia through her love of reading and a free education at Berea College.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the four organizations and over a dozen individuals who made this happen, along with what they have to say about the Odyssey Project.


Friends of the UW Odyssey Project, Inc.

Since 2009, Friends of the UW Odyssey Project, Inc., an all-volunteer organization, has raised and distributed funds for wrap-around support for Odyssey families to assist them with basic needs such as food, medication, transportation and housing. The Friends board unanimously voted to pledge five years of funding to the endowment to help guarantee Odyssey’s future.

Jean Feraca, Odyssey co-founder and Friends board member, reacted to the news that the endowment goal had been met: “This is just fantastic, especially in such a precarious time. This means Odyssey will be around, doing its magic, based on real life-changing results, for a long time to come, and its legacy has been secured.”

Oscar Rennebohm Foundation

The Oscar Rennebohm Foundation (ORF) supports educational and community programs improving the well-being of Dane County families. When ORF board members Steve Skolaski and Noble Wray attended the Madison Club Foundation charity gala for Odyssey, they heard from eloquent Odyssey alumni and watched a short video featuring their stories. The following month, ORF awarded Odyssey $50,000 to help build its endowment.

Skolaski says, “In my 30 years as a director of ORF, the one organization that stands out to me for its work in the community to give low-income adults free access to higher education is the UW Odyssey Project.”

Wray adds, “During my close to 30 years with the City of Madison Police Department, I have met and hired a number of Odyssey graduates. To a person, they all exude a sense of optimism, purpose and hope.”

Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation

The Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation awarded the UW Odyssey Project $500,000, the largest single gift in Odyssey’s history. Philanthropist Pleasant Rowland, a former classroom teacher who created American Girl and developed reading and language arts programs used nationwide, shared her admiration for the UW Odyssey Project’s whole-family approach to learning:

“I marvel at the way the Odyssey Project has helped adults who were once homeless and labeled ‘not college material’ go all the way to college degrees and careers helping others in our community. The Odyssey Project introduces them to great works of literature, history, philosophy and art and helps them find their own powerful voices. Now with Odyssey Junior, their children and grandchildren discover the joy of reading and self-expression, too. Throughout my life, I’ve believed that reading is at the heart of all achievement, making the American dream possible, so I’m delighted that our gift to Odyssey will help more families break a cycle of generational poverty and reach their dreams.”

The endowed Odyssey distinguished chair will be named in memory of Wanda Auerbach in recognition of her journey out of dire poverty in Appalachia through her love of reading and a free college education at Berea College. Rowland expressed her admiration of the Auerbach family’s hard-fought journey out of poverty and their generosity in giving back to others.

Rowland also praised the new Odyssey Beyond Bars program with its groundbreaking efforts to bring transformational education into Wisconsin’s prisons: “With Odyssey Beyond Bars and Odyssey Junior, we see Odyssey growing in exciting ways to help many more Wisconsin families.”

The Roots and Wings Foundation

The Roots and Wings Foundation helps low-income children and families reach their full potential.

Shana Dall’Osto, executive director of Roots and Wings , says, “Odyssey helps create a love of learning that can last a lifetime. By supporting parents and children, Odyssey helps put families on a path to reach their full potential. We are happy to join other donors in sustaining the Odyssey program for years to come.”

Both Dall’Osto and grants manager Nicole Smith attended Odyssey’s virtual graduation ceremony and were moved by students’ stories of overcoming adversity and finding new hope for themselves and their families.


Diane Ballweg

For local philanthropist Diane Ballweg, helping the Odyssey Project reach its endowment goal combined her interest in addressing basic economic injustice in the community with her support of programs that nurture participants’ humanity through the arts and education.

Ballweg quotes Mother Teresa: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” As Arkeia, one of the graduates of the Odyssey Class of 2020 observed, “The love Emily, her family and the staff have for people in Odyssey can never be expressed—it’s beyond earth.”

Dave and Terri Beck-Engel

Dave and Terri Beck-Engel have met several Odyssey students and watched them move from situations of despair to lives of promise and purpose. Their backgrounds in engineering, social work and art make them advocates for programs like the Odyssey Project that change lives and provide greater equity:

“We believe so much in education as a way to empowering self-agency and a vibrant, equitable community. Thank you for all you do to make Odyssey a great program for those who need it.”

David and Nancy Borghesi

These long-time Odyssey supporters are strong proponents of Odyssey’s focus on access to education and the humanities: “Education and cultural enrichment are the engine that drives society forward. The Odyssey Project exemplifies the spirit and success of education provided to many who otherwise would have little access from traditional modes. We are honored to be a part of this success story.”

Lau and Bea Christensen

Local philanthropists Lau and Bea Christensen, who attended Odyssey’s recent virtual graduation, say they are honored to support Odyssey:

“We decided to support the Morgridge match endowment for Odyssey because words are so important in all our lives. Our words are, ‘Yes, we want to enable others to gain wisdom through the words of the Odyssey program.’”

Pat and Dan Cornwell

Pat and Dan Cornwell have appreciated receiving copies of Odyssey student newsletters (Oracles) and graduation program booklets over the years. One recent student wrote, “The Odyssey Project helped me see beyond myself, recognize the potential I have to be great, become a better example for my daughter and live my best life. Thank you, Odyssey!”

“We appreciate so much the educational opportunities Odyssey offers to students,” the Cornwells say, “and we enjoy reading their responses of gratitude for the Odyssey experience.”

Deirdre Garton

After having learned about Odyssey Beyond Bars’ educational programs in Wisconsin prisons, Deirdre Garton was happy to be a part of the Odyssey endowment opportunity: “Having worked in the criminal justice and the juvenile justice systems for many years, I understand the transformative power of relationships. Negative ones undermine people’s capabilities. Positive ones help people soar. Odyssey helps people soar, and I am proud to help make that happen.”

Aerial, a single mother in the Odyssey Class of 2020, used the image of soaring in her poem “I Am an Eagle” shared at the virtual graduation ceremony: “The sky is the limit, so watch me soar. / I’m never satisfied, and always want more.”

Dick Goldberg and Lisa Munro

Dick Goldberg established a two-generation Odyssey scholarship named after his wife, Lisa Munro, in recognition of her work as an educator. Each year, an award goes to an Odyssey graduate along with money to help the graduate’s child.

Goldberg and Munro support Odyssey not only with the Lisa Munro Two-Generation Odyssey Scholarship but also through gifts to both its annual funds and the new endowment. They point to Odyssey’s 17-year track record of changing lives:

“At every Odyssey graduation ceremony, we are always impressed with the powerful and transformational impact the Odyssey program has had on the participants. It is very heartwarming and moving to see people who often have had really tough lives begin to flourish.”

Daniel and Julie Hartung

Julie and Dan Hartung, along with their daughters, have focused their family philanthropic giving on programs such as Odyssey’s that take a multi-generational approach to ending poverty through education. They add, “We support the Odyssey Project because we believe higher education should be accessible to all who wish to pursue it. In addition, the support from the teachers, staff and the other students really sets this program apart from the rest. With the addition of Odyssey Junior, the whole family can benefit from this great organization.”

Mary and Richard Lynch

For Mary and Rich Lynch, supporting the Odyssey Project and watching it grow has been a source of hope for many years.

“To change a life by offering meaningful support, inspiration and direction is so rewarding, but just as important, the participating students in the Odyssey Project gain lasting confidence in themselves, which opens up hope for new positive opportunities with family, friends and careers,” the Lynches say.

“There may be no better investment than to create opportunity, direction and inspiration for those with economic barriers to education, and with this learning comes hope . . . and the confidence to contribute and to succeed.”

Anonymous donors on behalf of Nancy and Charles Press

Nancy and Charles Press met Bob and Wanda Auerbach, parents of Odyssey Co-Director/Founder Emily Auerbach, 60 years ago, and they were inspired by the Auerbach family story of escaping poverty and persecution.

These anonymous donors have chosen to remember Nancy and honor Charles Press by supporting the Odyssey endowment in their names: “Nancy and Charles Press spent their lives trying to help out those less fortunate and were huge believers in education. That is why the Odyssey Project is the perfect organization for their support.”

Steven and Carol Skolaski

As President of the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation (see above), Steve Skolaski argued in favor of a grant to the Odyssey Project for its endowment. He also decided to make a personal gift as well.

“My wife Carol and I are delighted to support the great work of Odyssey’s staff and students. We look forward to seeing the ways that Odyssey, Odyssey Junior, Onward Odyssey and Odyssey Beyond Bars will grow in the future now that an endowment is in place.”

Charles Snowdon and Ann Lindsey

Professor Emeritus Charles “Chuck” Snowdon and Ann Lindsey have supported Odyssey in numerous ways. At the Madison Club charity gala, they heard Odyssey graduate Keena Atkinson tell her story of going from homelessness—sleeping on the floor of a barbershop with her son—when she applied to Odyssey to earning her UW bachelor’s degree and opening up her own businesses.

“We have been impressed by the successful results of the Odyssey Project and want to ensure its long-term survival,” they add. “In these troubling times, Odyssey has provided rays of hope, and we are delighted to help it continue far into the future.”