MILFORD — Seven unlikely friends joined forces years ago to take on Odyssey of the Mind one problem at a time.
Together, they would survive drama fit for any group of teenagers and ultimately take second place against teams from all over the world in the creative problem-solving competition.
The Milford School District-based team consists of students from around the Milford area, not just students from the district. None of them, they agreed, would have it any other way.
It all started with an interest meeting where Caleb Brownstein, a ninth-grader at the time, took a stand for something he wanted to be involved in — a technical problem through Odyssey of the Mind.
“I got hooked by accident,” his dad and coach Dr. Adam Brownstein said, adding that he and his wife Molly, a teacher at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School and fellow Odyssey of the Mind coach, quickly became interested in the organization.
Bethany Pasmore and Ry’Ana Johnson, then-Milford Central Academy students, were also there looking for an extracurricular activity and decided they would give the technical problem a try when they saw Caleb standing by himself.
“And he came with an adult,” Bethany said, which meant their team would have an active coach. She and Ry’Ana now both attend Sussex Technical High School.
Another teammate was needed, and the two girls convinced Delaney Dillon to join the mix. She now attends Polytech High School. Bethany’s brother, Donnie, now a Sussex Technical High School student, and athletes Welinton Rosario and Isabella Keesler-Evans, both of Milford High School, would also join the team in the years to come.
“None of us came in as best friends,” Bethany added. “It was more like: I don’t know you, but you’re really good at that and I’m really good at this. And so, it came together. … We don’t force the pegs where they don’t fit.”
Each of the students brought their own strengths and weaknesses. None may have been more surprising than Welinton’s “hidden woodworking talent we didn’t know about until this year,” Caleb said.
“I’m coming from a different background. I feel like everybody has something creative to give. For example, I’m a wrestler and in the top five for pole vaulting in the state. That’s me showing off I’m a jock person. And even though you might not be the cookie-cutter person, people accept you. There’s a place for everyone on an Odyssey of the Mind team,” Welinton said. “Honestly, I had no idea what I was walking into. But it was definitely something out there. I was branching out into different types of extra-curriculars and Odyssey kind of showed up on my doorstep and I decided to try it out. Comparing it to the other things, it was just a new world. I don’t know a lot of other extra-curriculars where you have to use your creative thinking. It’s always a motivation when people see what you like to do.”
Over the years, drama invaded the group as its own weakness but even that wouldn’t tear the students apart. If anything, their coaches said it brought them closer together as they worked for months on end, sometimes as much as four times a week, to create a flawless presentation.
Dr. Brownstein said, “There is clearly very different temperaments. We’ve had relationships within the team, certain … diagnoses on our team. … What is a marvel about this team is that it’s almost in spite of the weaknesses they make it work. From a parental standpoint, it’s amazing to watch them accommodate one another in a way that you would never know that about this team. It’s the fact that [they] are willing to accept each [other] for who [they] are that makes it work the way it does.”
Sitting in a circle discussing their final competition, the team reflected on their experiences knowing this was their last year vying for a title together. Caleb graduated high school, two team members will soon move out of the area and the remaining four are spread out between three different schools.
“We knew at the very beginning of our season this would be our last hoorah. For these guys and for me, that put a lot of pressure on us to pull a rabbit out of a hat and we wanted the rabbit,” Dr. Brownstein said.
The team pulled through and accomplished what they set out to do from the very start. At the world finals this year at Michigan State University in late May, they were awarded second place in division three’s technical/engineering problem called Hide in Plain Sight, according to Milford School District’s Secondary Odyssey of the Mind Coordinator Judith Woods.
“The team showed ingenuity, teamwork, creativity, and excellence in their Long Term Solution, the Style Component, and the Spontaneous Competition. Their performance was awe-inspiring, and made me proud to have worked with these students and their coaches for the past six years. They exemplify all that is great about Milford School District and the Community of Milford,” she said.
Superintendent Dr. Kevin Dickerson also offered his congratulations to the team, saying, “We are very proud of Milford’s Odyssey of the Mind team for their world recognition. Finishing second in the world is a testament to the team’s commitment, teamwork and overall excellence. The team is a great representation of the entire Milford community. On behalf of the Milford School District, we congratulate the team’s students and coaches for their outstanding efforts and achievement.”
More than a million children from around the world participate in Odyssey of the Mind teams every year including students in more than 40 states and 29 countries on five continents, according to the organization. But only the top will go on to finals.
The team from Milford High School didn’t go to the world finals in their first year. But in the years to follow, they would take 42nd place, 16th place and eventually seventh place before they showed up to the worldwide competition this year.
Knowing their team’s journey with Odyssey of the Mind was coming to a close, team captains, Bethany and Caleb, said they felt stressed the night before their biggest performances yet.
“The night before our world’s performances, I was honestly more worried that something would come up and I would say the wrong thing. I was worried about trying to manage the whole team, or if something would break, how would we manage that situation,” Bethany said.
The actor in the group, Donnie, said he was stressed, too. But he knew his team was there as a unit and would succeed no matter what.
“I’m normally a very calm person. I don’t easily get worked up or nervous. I’ve done a number of plays and things and never have I had a performance where I forget lines. Last year at odyssey, I wasn’t worked up either. This year, I was very nervous before our performance. This year, I was 100 percent of our comic relief. And in a Russian accent. But I felt calm because I knew my teammates and they’re all there for me,” he explained.
Ry’Ana said the experience, despite the competition aspect, is thrilling. Not only do they get to show off what they know, but they also get to meet teams from all over, watch their cultural performances and trade pins to remember them by for a lifetime.
“The whole year of regionals and states, it’s a friendly competition. Once you get to worlds, the competition part of it doesn’t matter anymore. We’re cheering other countries on even though we’re competing against them,” she said.
Bethany agreed, saying, “The first time we went [to worlds], the atmosphere there was very, everyone is happy to be there. Pin trading was the biggest culture shock we got because it was a thing we didn’t know existed. We did it here, but not like that. There were thousands of thousands of pins. Being able to form relationships even though there’s a clear language and cultural barrier, seeing other cultural experiences. . .”
Delaney chimed in, saying, “I feel like the excitement never really wears off no matter how many times we go.”
But, for now, the students say they’re just taking a break.
“I would say for us, this isn’t the end of our Odyssey journey. It’s going to be a change, but this isn’t going to be the end,” Bethany said.
The seven students and two coaches now call themselves a family and are even planning the ultimate family outing this year in celebration of their accomplishments and, maybe more importantly, the relationships they have come to love — a summer vacation.