Taking the Less-Traveled Academic Road


By Rita Robinson | LB Indy

 Scenes of street life in Ethiopia. Photo by Marla Hodes

Scenes of street life in Ethiopia. Photo by Marla Hodes

Last summer, Dean Hodes went with his uncle, a medical doctor in Ethiopia, on his rounds at Mother Teresa’s Orphanage for destitute children in Addis Ababa, the African country’s capital city.

The young Hodes fed, played with and started teaching “Simon Says” to a few 7- and 8-year-old blind children to help them learn a little English while having a little fun.  What struck the 16-year-old was how happy the children were, despite their physical challenges.

This past Tuesday, Dean flew from Los Angeles to Addis Ababa, a 24-hour journey, this time to spend his entire junior year of high school taking classes at the International Community School, and to help at the orphanage again.

“There were people without limbs,” said Dean.  “There were people who had pretty much given up.  It made me want to do something that makes a difference.”

Dean has already spent three weeks in Addis Ababa over the last two summers. Despite the pervasive poverty, lack of shelter and food, and people living on the streets, he said adults and children alike are warm and cheerful and the kids ready for a pick-up soccer game anytime.

Having an uncle in Addis Ababa who’s an internationally renowned M.D. is the reason Dean is stepping out of the expected academic pattern.  In addition to taking baccalaureate classes at the international school, he’ll also work with his uncle, Dr. Rick Hodes, at the orphanage, help his mother film a documentary about Ethiopian women with HIV and live with five “cousins,” children with serious health problems and physical deformities his uncle has adopted over the years.

Not your typical junior year in high school.

For a high school junior to spend a year studying abroad is “totally unusual,” said Lynn Fair, a college-entrance counselor who’s been helping the Hodes plan Dean’s curriculum for the past year.  “There’s probably less than one percent of students who do something like this, not just in Laguna but in California. He had the opportunity, and it was something he really couldn’t pass up.”

Dean is also contributing to his curriculum.  “He’s going to take his other interests and combine them with the schooling over there, such as his photography, and working with all of the students his uncle has living with him,” Fair said.  “He’s going to gain so much more than he would if he had stayed here at school.  He’ll be able to bring that experience back with him.”

Dean’s dad, Dan, is a trial attorney based in Irvine and will be joining his son along with his wife, Marla, and their 15-year-old twins, Carly and Matthew, for Thanksgiving.

“My reaction is mixed,” Dan said Tuesday.  “At the end of the day, I’ll deal with my own emotions, and I’m left with a great sense of excitement for him and, I suppose, a bit of envy.”

Marla, an exercise physiologist, is venturing into documentary filmmaking and accompanying her son to Addis Ababa for two weeks to film African women there with HIV.

Marla has been to Addis Ababa before to set up a nonprofit for her brother-in-law, and shares her son’s heartfelt impressions about the people.

“They’re homeless because they literally don’t have a home,” she said.  “It isn’t because of drug abuse or mental illness.  There’s a lot of little kids begging at car windows and asking for money to buy food; there’s crippled people begging.  With that said, crime is almost nonexistent.  They’re not sad.”

Dean Hodes and his mother Marla.
Dean Hodes and his mother Marla.

One of Dean’s Ethiopian cousins, Dejenje, was flown to another country for back surgery thanks to Dr. Hodes’ care to straighten a 90-degree angle in his spine.  He inspired the young Hodes to come back to Addis Ababa and go to school there.

Dean isn’t new to taking the academic road less traveled.  He went to the nontraditional Waldorf School in Costa Mesa from kindergarten to sixth grade and then to another Waldorf school, the Journey School, and St. Mary’s International Baccalaureate World School in Aliso Viejo.  He started going to Laguna Beach High School two years ago.

“I like school.  It’s not really a hassle for me,” said Hodes, who finished a third-year Spanish course online the day before his flight and he wants to learn more Amharic, an Ethiopian language, while he’s there.  “I’m hoping to discover more about myself and find out what I want to do,” Dean said, adding that he’s had strong adult role models with interests he likes, too.

Dr. Hodes was a finalist in CNN’s 2007 “Heroes” series in the “Championing Children” category.  HBO also made a documentary of his work called “Making the Crooked Straight,” which aired last April. Dean hopes to bring his photography into play while working at his uncle’s clinic.

“I think I would tell American doctors to do something a bit different:  ‘follow your heart,’” said Dr. Hodes in a television interview where he wore a bright-green-striped knitted hat with a topnotch, a la Dr. Seuss.  He added that making his patients laugh is a big part of his medical practice.

After working in Ethiopia during the famine of 1984-85, the internist received a Fulbright Scholarship from John Hopkins University in 1985 and returned to Ethiopia.  He was supposed to stay for a year; he’s been there 25.  “I do what I want,” Dr. Hodes said. The young Hodes apparently inherited his uncle’s spirit.  “He’s definitely an independent spirit,” college counselor Fair confirmed.

As for leaving Laguna Beach, Dean shares his father’s mixed emotions.  “Right now, I feel kinda sad,” he said, “because I’m going to leave all my friends.  But it’s going to be a great experience so I’m kinda happy, too.”

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