For people struggling with substance abuse disorders, earning a high school equivalency is just one of many important steps on the path to recovery and a better life. For 50 years, Odyssey House of New York City has been providing an integrated treatment approach that addresses every area of a person’s life when confronting substance abuse—physical and mental health, home and family, and education and employment.
We sat down with Carl Clavier, Coordinator of Vocational Services, and Carolyn Abrams, Communications Coordinator, to learn about Odyssey House’s holistic approach to treatment and the important role that education plays in helping people achieve lasting recovery.
Can you tell us a little bit about Odyssey House, such as the people you serve and the types of programs you offer?
Odyssey House is primarily a substance abuse disorder treatment program. We have 12 different locations across New York City, mostly in the South Bronx and East Harlem. We have residential and outpatient treatment, and we also have a number of supportive housing buildings. Within those buildings we offer educational/vocational services, medical care, fitness and wellness programs, and art programs. The people who are staying with us—either in permanent housing or in residential treatment—have access to all of these programs and services.
What type of education and job training services are available?
We work in partnership with the New York City Department of Education and Restart Academy to provide on-site educational services, including Adult Basic Education (ABE) services and TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™ high school equivalency (HSE) preparation and testing. We also work with several vocational training organizations to provide training for a variety of jobs, including building maintenance, culinary arts, commercial driving, auto mechanics, health care, clerical duties, and computer installation.
We provide services for all ages, including a young adults program (ages 19–24), an adults program (ages 25–54), and an elder care program (55 and older). All of these ranges participate in our education programs. Most of those who earn their HSE are the young adults and the adults, but we do have elder care clients who pass the TASC test as well.
How do you help clients prepare for the TASC test?
At Odyssey House, we make it mandatory for all those who come through the program without a high school equivalency to attend school. We have three levels of ABE classes as well as a TASC test preparation class that prepare them to take the exam. We administer about 150–200 exams every year.
Some of our clients may not want to attend school, but once they get into class and start learning and see they are close to achieving that goal, they really get into it and become interested. Once they pass the TASC test and earn their HSE, you can imagine how happy they are that we required them to do it. And when they achieve that goal, it’s something extraordinary.
How long are your clients in classes before they’re ready to take the test?
On average, our clients take classes for 3–6 months before they are ready for the exam. Some are ready after just a couple of months in class, but some may stay for a year if they’re in treatment for that long. They’re determined, they stay in school, and they reach that goal.
We administer the TABE® (Tests of Adult Basic Education) periodically to measure each person’s level of improvement and determine when to move them from lower classes to the next level, and ultimately to the TASC Test Readiness Assessment. When they’re ready, we refer them to take the TASC test. Even for those who complete the treatment program before taking the test, we allow them the opportunity to come back and take it.
You don’t charge any fees to take the TASC test. How important is that to your clients?
The affordability is critical for our clients. At that stage in treatment, they’re not working so they don’t have any money to pay testing fees. The fact that it’s absolutely free to them and they don’t have to pay anything really helps a lot.
What motivates your clients to earn their high school equivalency?
For many of them it’s the desire to achieve a goal that has eluded them in their adolescence or in their adult life. Some have taken the test many times but haven’t passed it. Our clients have a background of substance abuse disorders and it’s challenging for them. Some have been in school for years, even decades; so to come back and accomplish that goal is important.
We emphasize not only the treatment of substance abuse, but a holistic view of treatment. They have to address all the areas of their lives that are going to make them successful, so education, training, and employment are part of their treatment plan. Earning their HSE is advancing them further in achieving success and recovery.
Do your clients go on to do vocational training after passing the TASC test?
Absolutely—that’s the goal. For some of them, passing the exam is critical because they need a high school equivalency to get into the training they want. So passing it is basically a pre-requisite to move into training.
What does it mean to your clients to earn their HSE? What kind of reactions do you see?
They are ecstatic. Some of them never thought that they would achieve it. They will come to us beforehand and say, “I don’t want to do it because I don’t think I’m capable; I’m not focused.” They don’t have trust in themselves and they have low confidence. But we encourage them and tell them to give it a try, give it a chance. And when they do earn their HSE, some of them go hugging everybody they can find. That’s something amazing to see.
How do you celebrate your clients’ accomplishments?
We have a graduation ceremony on a yearly basis for all those who have passed the TASC test throughout the year. We recognize the valedictorian and we give a plaque of recognition to people who have succeeded despite particularly challenging circumstances. We hold the ceremony in front of the entire treatment community family, and we have a big shout of recognition and applause from the whole community for their accomplishments.
Do you hear from people about how they’re doing after they leave your programs?
Yes, we do. In addition to the HSE graduation we also have a treatment graduation for those who complete the treatment program, and clients return six months to a year later for that graduation. Some of them do keep in touch and we know how they’re doing. Some go to college or enter employment. We have a college advisor in our vocational staff who helps with college applications, and we’ve seen an increase in those applying for college after completing their high school equivalency. Some are accepted while they’re in treatment and actually attend college while in the program.
What are you most passionate about with your work at Odyssey House?
Carolyn: I do communications for the agency, and what I really enjoy is seeing these clients turn their lives around and sharing their stories. It’s great to see them come from a place where they were so low, and then to build themselves back up with the help of our education department and our wonderful counselors, and set themselves on a path to a much brighter future.
Carl: As a rehab addiction counselor, for me it’s very important to see people get back on track with their lives. Our goal is really to help them become self-sufficient economically since many of them are chronic users of entitlement benefits. So to see them coming out of public benefits, getting a job—it’s really satisfying to see. Every time a client achieves a goal toward becoming self-sufficient, it’s important to me personally.
Is there anything else that you want people to know about Odyssey House?
Odyssey House takes a holistic approach to treatment. We have a comprehensive program that addresses every area of a person’s life. If they have medical needs, we have a medical clinic right there to care for them. We have psychiatrists, we have the educational program, we have training available, and we help with obtaining employment. It’s this holistic approach that helps people to really become successful. When you just treat the substance abuse problem, that doesn’t address the other areas and they are more likely to relapse. But when you prepare people to change their lifestyle, to have new goals, to have hope—that really helps them to maintain recovery and be successful.