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by Danya Steele
Photos by Oscar Peralta

Additional Imagery by Essence.com


It was then, as I ruffled with my difficult gown during a popular awards ceremony this past spring that I first realized how ignorant I was. The theme of the most recent spring 2001 Essence Awards was heroism, and as the lights dimmed and the large stage screen lit up to honor these two men -- neither of whom, I had ever heard of -- I began to realize how hidden of a gem Harlem School at Exodus House, really was. It took the Essence awards to waver my ignorance; little did I know, these men were honored on stage, but heroes in Harlem. I soon learned of this remarkable story -- the story about two men who turned away from their success and converted their parents' old rehab center into a thriving middle school within a struggling East Harlem neighborhood.

No stranger to the community, Exodus House has played a distinguished role in East Harlem for nearly 40 years. Created in 1963 as a residential drug rehabilitation center by the parents of Hans and Ivan Hageman, the men learned early on the invaluable lessons of humanity.

They knew what it meant to be sacrificial, what it meant to care, and what it took to transcend society in face of adversaries -- particularly as minorities. The family lived above the rehabilitation center, as the boys were enrolled in prestigious prep schools in the city. The parents of the Hageman brothers made sure that these boys were well-rounded in both their exposure to life's luxury and struggle.

Both were extraordinary students; Hans went on to Princeton and Columbia, Ivan progressed to Harvard. As adults, Hans and Ivan were already well off into illustrious and successful careers.

Hans was chief counsel for the Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) of Harlem, served as the minority chief counsel to a U.S. Senate subcommittee, and was an an associate at two New York law firms; Ivan had a distinguished administrative career throughout New York City public and private school systems.

Quite frankly, these brothers had it made. They had the careers and educational opportunities that many only fantasize about -- but they wanted more. In 1984, as a response to the degenerating condition of the community's young people, the Hageman parents reinstated Exodus House as an educational facility, offering an after-school and summer program for some of the many at-risk children in the neighborhood.

The Hageman brothers aided in this effort when they could, and, in 1993, after the saddening death of the Hageman parents, the sons decided to follow in their footsteps of community service. Feeling incumbent for their old neighborhood, the brothers left their high-profile careers and came to care for a small school in East Harlem -- the honorable thing is, they sacrificed luxury and leisure for it...and they didn't have to.

The Brothers Give Birth...

Exodus House was now reintroduced as The Harlem School at Exodus House, an independent middle school for 5th-8th grades. News of this new school spread mostly by word of mouth. At the time, neighborhood parents weren't interested in sending their children to the local public schools, and plenty of those parents knew the Hageman brothers.

So there they had it: the attorney and school administrator became the executive director and principal of the Harlem School at Exodus House, respectively.

Today, the school's exterior is a robust painting on a wall with the words "Competence with Character" etched into its stone, as almost an exact representation of how these same concepts are etched into the minds of Exodus House students.

Weeks after that fateful awards ceremony, I was granted my wish; I was finally fortuned to an interview with one of the founders of Exodus House, Hans Hageman. After a tour of Exodus House by an amazingly articulate sixth grader, I greet Hans Hageman, taking a seat down in the cafeteria. His immediate presence is one of warmth, strength, and amicability. Having been involved in the school for eight years now, Hans has worn a great many of hats.

As executive director of Exodus, he's been responsible for the school's fundraising, public relations, curriculum design, informal counseling, guidance, outdoor trips, and a number of others, as well. "I liked being with kids" says Hans. If there were ever any indication of Hans's passion for Exodus students, it would be his unquestionable bouts of selfless concern for the welfare of the school and the kids within it.

"For four years, I was the cook here," he states, motioning around the small cafeteria space. "I cooked breakfast, lunch, and even sometimes stayed around for dinner, for those kids who, for whatever reason, wouldn't have been able to get that that home."

The cuisines were vegetarian, as Hans also keeps the kids healthy by teaching Judo, a well-known martial arts style of self defense. Self defense -- an intriguing addition to the curriculum of Exodus House. At one time however, students weren't the only ones taking up self defense.

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