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Parent Volunteers Prop Up Odyssey of the Mind Competition


Many mothers, fathers, relatives and friends supporting Odyssey of the Mind teams find out it’s not just an odyssey for the students when their child gets involved. The competition can take over much of their lives after they sign on for the ride.

Don Kennedy gave up his living room for several months so his child’s Odyssey of the Mind team could practice. As someone who’s had lots of experience with Odyssey, losing a few rooms for practice was not unusual. He admitted it “wasn’t in the original plans” but his understanding wife was OK with it.

Creativity reigned with Sara Prodanovic’s dress made of tin can lids
Creativity reigned with Sara Prodanovic’s dress made of tin can lids

“It wasn’t a big deal because it’s all about the students,” Kennedy said at the recent Michigan Odyssey of the Mind state finals at Thornapple Kellogg schools.

Nearly a dozen Kent ISD districts were represented this year at the state level of the international creative problem-solving competition.

The fun for parents begins when teams enter the competition between September and December. Then students start practicing — and parents start driving. The adults quickly learn how to rearrange their schedules, and they begin logging what can be hundreds of miles on the road. “I can’t even begin to tell you the hours,” said one mom at the competition.

Once a group knows what it wants to build, parents find themselves taking trips to home improvement stores to pick up parts needed for props. PVC pipe is used a lot, and parents become skilled at getting humongous 10-foot sections through halls full of people. The creations get so large, some parents actually have to rent a trailer to transport them to tournament sites. One mini-van at the state finals was jammed full of props from the windshield to the rear window with no room for passengers except the driver.

Getting up at 5:30 a.m to make it to the Saturday tournament on time isn’t unheard of. Others spend bucks to spend the night before at a nearby hotel.

♥At this year’s event, volunteers in orange vests helped direct parking. Dozens more volunteers inside helped people find the right rooms, coached and judged. Despite more than 2,000 people at the Thornapple Kellogg event, it ran smoothly.

“Mostly I see everybody grinning from ear to ear,” said volunteer Mike Bremer.

“It couldn’t happen without all the volunteers,” said Pam Gombert, associate director of Creativity Unlimited in Michigan, a nonprofit organization that sponsors the Odyssey program. The Thornapple Kellogg volunteers were “incredible” to work with and went beyond expectations, she said.

“It’s such an opportunity to have it here and show off our community,” said Holli Dickman, who was in charge of volunteers.

Parent Don Kennedy compares Odyssey of the Mind to athletic contests. “It’s a sport like any other sport, and it teaches good sportsmanship,” he said. “It’s true project-based learning. The only way you’re going to get experience with that is doing this.”

After presentations by the teams, it can be a wait of a couple of hours or more until the awards are announced. That is when Heather Taylor, an Odyssey mom from Rockford, gets nervous. “During the awards is the worst,” she said.

One thing families cannot do is help students with the hands-on part of the project, as the main goal of Odyssey is to let children create and discover solutions on their own.

Sue Potter and her son Jake take a break from the competition
Sue Potter and her son Jake take a break from the competition

Teams that did well at regionals in February competed at the state finals at Thornapple Kellogg. Those who won first- or second-place at state advanced to the world finals May 25-28 at Iowa State University.

The most important contribution parents make? Encouraging and supporting the students throughout the competition. “You always want to see the kids do good,” Kennedy said.

Like Kennedy, mother Sue Potter also gave up part of her house – the basement — for practices for her son Jake’s team. “I just make sure they’re not running around doing nothing down there,” she said, jokingly.

Potter and the parents of other team members used texting, email, phone calls, a Lotus notes calendar and Shutterfly to keep track of things. But an old-style verbal communication from her son was one of the reasons it was all worthwhile.

“Mom,” said Jake during a break at the contest, “I think you are so neat for doing this for me.”

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Odyssey of the Mind

Results of state finals

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.

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