Africa TripI met the most amazing Doctor, Rick Hodes, in my friend’s living room in New York last spring– an evening orchestrated by two women who care deeply about his work and the organization he is affiliated with – the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC which has been around for 100 years).

I was awestruck listening to Dr. Rick talk about the work he has done in Ethiopia over the past 30 years. Dr. Hodes is a graduate of Middlebury College and grew up in Long Island – that’s about all that was relatable. He has made it his life’s work to help kids with severe spinal issues in Ethiopia – his story is straight from one of my favorite books, Cutting For Stone. (If you haven’t read it – Do!) BTW, he is acknowledged in the book.

Although Dr. Rick is a rock star in the field of spinal issues – he doesn’t actually do the surgeries, as he’s not a surgeon, but he has partnered with a brilliant doctor in Ghana and a team of others with a singular mission to give Ethiopian kids a pain free life with a functioning spine. And as he has become world renown for his work he has been able to attract funds to build a hospital in Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia and in Gondar, (the third largest city in Ethiopia).

Please see this video if you want to see some of his work.


After 50, I spent a great deal of time thinking about active, “feet on the ground” philanthropic work. The truth is that although I have several causes I am involved with, I was searching for one that I could engage with directly, one that uses some of my skills, and connects me with bright people who are doers.

When I heard about a JDC study trip to Ethiopia where we would meet Dr. Hodes’ patients plus see other JDC projects such as schools, science and business projects, I jumped at it.

I signed up for their study trip to Ethiopia with an add-on to see a youth village in Rwanda, Agahoza-Shalom (more on ASYV in another blog) knowing it would be a rigorous trip. Despite the reality that I was signing onto an itinerary that was not 100% my thing – there were compelling reasons that drew me in.

Mostly it was about the kids there. The average age in Ethiopia is 25 (population 86 million) and 60 percent of Rwanda’s population is under 20 with a large group of orphans from the genocide of 1994.

Despite my desire to learn – there were plenty of elements about this trip that were out of my comfort zone.

I had to overcome some real personal hurdles in order to sign on for this trip and it took a lot of courage to go for it. Here’s just a few.

  1. The travel time. Flying 16 hours. The only time I have ever sat for that long is in a library cramming for finals.
  2. Sleeping Alone. Call me a travel slut, but I like to share a hotel room with a friend if my husband isn’t with me – bunking in like a camper is my idea of girl time. Unfortunately for me, most over-50’s prefer their personal space — my two travel friends turned me down as they were relishing their own hotel rooms.
  1. I don’t like to be away from my husband for very long. I wasn’t anxious to leave my husband Bill for two whole weeks. During our 9 years together we have not been apart for more than a few days – and never in different time zones, nor CONTINENTS apart! Thinking about the distance and the time apart with limited Internet felt uncomfortable. I was already missing him before I left.
  1. Our Itinerary – some of it. A portion of our trip had a medical focus with visits to hospitals and clinics. I couldn’t get my head around visiting examining rooms at clinics in Ethiopia observing kids with severe spinal issues. I could barely look at the power point of these kids’ spines during the pre-trip presentation. However, the doctor whose work we would be seeing, Rick Hodes, is a phenomenal guy and it was his work we would be observing. His work is turning around these kids’ lives and he was someone I wanted to get to know and see in action. Plus, the rest of the itinerary was my cup of tea: education and entrepreneurship with a social impact.
  1. Getting sick. I was told, “Don’t get sick on your trip – you don’t want to end up in a hospital in Ethiopia.” Great – how much of this could I control? We were going to a place that was dirty, impoverished and disease ridden. I pre-gamed at a travel clinic which didn’t make me any more comfortable: I got my jabs of Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hep, Flu and a magic potion of Malaria pills to fight off the potential of what could befall me in Ethiopia and Rwanda.
  1. Food challenges! No salads – no raw veggies. Probably no cheese either. I have never had to give up my green staples or fromage – I mean NEVER! What would I eat since I don’t eat red meat either?

So what worked?

What worked was the motivation to try something educational and hands on that I had never done before. I wanted to stir my pot as I had begun to feel routinized in my daily life. I needed to stretch out and open my mind up to helping others in a meaningful way. So I went to learn from the best – Dr. Hodes – someone who is the uber giver – a man whose every breath is directed toward healing these “kids.”

If you’re trying to push yourself out of your comfort zone into a world that needs your humanitarian support – money and hands-on help – but are too afraid to take that step. – maybe this little story will help you.

The truth is — there was stuff that taxed me on the trip that really pushed me past my limits (like all 6 of the above hurdles), but I dealt with them. My mantra became “I am adaptable” and this proved to carry me through.

Coming home felt like a huge exhale of relief from this challenging trip. I am still processing what my next steps will be and despite my exhaustion – I am glad I went.

As I join my family for Thanksgiving this week, I am more grateful than ever to be back home in the USA. I am more aware than ever of our plentiful lives and how much others are in need.

Wishing you all a peaceful and delicious Thanksgiving with your loved ones.

What My Personally Challenging Trip To Africa Taught Me About Gratitude was last modified: by

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