Learning on the road to recovery
Odyssey College, the educational arm of Sydney’s addiction treatment service Odyssey House, provides free adult education to help residents recovering from addiction to develop the skills they need to rebuild their lives.
Like many residents, ‘Anne’, 32, was referred to Odyssey House’s residential program from the criminal justice system. She arrived at Odyssey House after being arrested and after losing care of her three children.
‘I had no option about being here,’ Anne says. ‘I had to come here to get my children back. It was tough but they are my whole world.’ The idea of attending the college was intimidating. Anne had dropped out of school in year 10 after she got pregnant and didn’t have much faith in her ability to learn. ‘My self-esteem was pretty low. I thought “I’m just a mum.” I had no job, nothing.’
Seven months on Anne has found new confidence and is preparing for the transition to her new life and being reunited with her children.
Catherine Macgonigal, principal of the college, says re-engaging residents with learning can be difficult. But developing education plans around each person’s particular skills and aspirations and building rapport is crucial.
All residents start with a three month foundation program and can progress to core and senior levels, studying subjects including art, woodwork, computing, physical education, maths and English. Vocational training in hospitality, forklift, traffic control and white card is also on offer.
Greg Hughes, one of eight staff at the college, teaches woodwork and is co-ordinator of vocational training.
A former high school teacher, Greg has been with Odyssey for 17 years. He says starting learners off with tailored projects that are both achievable and challenging is a balancing act, but it pays off.
‘Most of them have got a history of dropping out or of bad experiences with teachers so it’s important to help them see things through to completion and to say it’s OK to make mistakes, whether it’s in art or woodwork or English or maths’.
For residents who have had poor educational experiences in the past the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a project is a powerful incentive to keep going. Small classes, an environment that is fun, safe and free of judgement ensures that the learning experience is a positive one.
‘I think all our teachers understand these people have hit rock bottom and they have to attend college so we have to make the environment conducive to learning. The majority respond well but there are a few who don’t, but through encouragement and acknowledgement they end up coming round. They respond so well when a teacher gives them a pat on the back.
‘Education opens doors to new avenues. It breaks the old routines that have contributed to their addiction and gives them new ways of spending their time.’ Greg Hughes
‘We offer them projects that aim to rebuild the relationships they’ve lost through addiction with their kids or their partners. The project is a way of saying “I am thinking of you while I’m in here”. It’s a way of building trust and love. So everyone makes something different. They make small toys or a jewellery box or wooden puzzles that they can use themselves.’
Despite the importance of education to their recovery, resident turnover can be high and as a staff member you have to be prepared for that, Greg says. ‘I have to look at it that whether someone is here for two days or 12 months, every day someone is here is a success. They’re becoming healthier, they’re becoming dependable. While they’re here we are creating opportunities for them and there’s fewer overdoses, there’s crime off the streets, the health system is being used less.’
‘My passion and drive to see people change their lives is what keeps me here.’ Greg Hughes
Student profile at Odyssey College is changing
The profile of residents is different now to when Greg first started. ‘The drug culture has changed a lot in the 17 years that I’ve been here. Back then it was heroin use that had a big physical impact and our residents were mainly older guys with a good work ethic. Now it’s ice which has a big impact on the brain so we have a lot of people with mental health problems and emotional disability, who might be antisocial or have depression or anxiety. Some people have really damaged themselves and might not recover fully.’
One of the rewards of the job is seeing people follow a career pathway and establish a new life.
‘I’ve seen people leave here and go on to take up a trade or tertiary study who said, “You inspired me to do this.” One resident went on to do training and now he is a manager in our community services team. So seeing someone go on and do something like that is very rewarding.
‘Most people who come in have earnt a lot of money selling drugs and when they come in they want to get back out there after they’ve finished the program and earn big money again in some high paying job. So we have to tell them that’s never going to happen. We say, “The best thing you can do to keep clean is to find an occupation you love and that will give you purpose in life that will make you happy.”’
Anne’s a convert to learning
Anne is now a senior at the College with her sights set on a career and working towards her goal of being reunited with her kids. She puts her change of attitude down to Odyssey College.
‘It’s given me self confidence and self-worth. ‘I take things a lot more seriously than I did at school. I don’t muck about. Mum used to say “I’d give anything to go back to school” and I used to think, “No way.” But now I know what she meant. I’d love to go back and complete year 12. And I wouldn’t rush through, I would do it properly. I want to support and encourage my kids to do the same, to keep studying because you can make so much more of your life.’
For Anne the Barnardos case worker assigned to her was an inspiration for a new career.
‘She has been a great friend and support to me. Her support and the support here at Odyssey has changed my life.’
Anne wants to pursue a career where she can use what’s she learned through her own experiences to help others.
‘I’d love to help young women who are in the same spot as me. I want to work at Barnardos to help restore children to their mother’s care. In five years time hopefully I will have my own place, I’ll have my kids living with me, and I will do everything I can to make that happen. I will also be working in my career at Barnardos.’
Troy is studying for a new career at Odyssey College
‘Troy’, 36, has been at Odyssey House for seven months. He left school in year 9 and completed year 10 at TAFE before finding work in film and TV production.
He’s worked his way through foundation and core levels and is now a senior enrolled in a TAFE drafting course online. The college has helped him identify his strengths.
‘I’ve done a lot of trade work in the past and enjoyed the maths side of it, measuring stuff out and ordering it. It was nice to get a refresher. I’m a practical learner so if I can see how things apply in real life it’s much easier for me. Getting back into maths made me feel like I have a good mind for problem solving.
‘It makes me feel good to be able to learn things I missed first time round. It’s been good for jumpstarting my brain.
‘It’s different to school. You’re treated like an adult and you work at your own pace, which is good because you can take your time.
‘I was most nervous about English because I’ve never been a good reader or speller. It was challenging but I’m more confident now. The teachers are great, they bend over backwards for you and make it enjoyable and fun. It’s been years since I’ve read for pleasure. Now I enjoy reading autobiographies.
‘I’ve also learned that I’ve got good patience and my concentration is a lot better than a few months ago. As long as I take my time and don’t rush through things I’m OK.’
Even if college wasn’t compulsory Troy says he’d still attend because it’s a welcome relief from the intensity of group therapy sessions. He’s currently half way through his drafting course and intends to get as much done as he can before he leaves Odyssey House and will continue with his studies until he finds work.
Read the full issue of Quest 1, 2023