The Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood of Indianapolis has had its share of ups and downs over the years. From the early days of railroad-driven prosperity, to the more recent era characterized by declining jobs and property values along with attendant poverty, crime and gang violence, a restlessness here reflects the hopelessness of so many decades of struggle.
As resident Aster Bekele puts it, “Everybody in this area is waiting to get out. They shouldn’t have to wait just to get out. They should be able to figure out how to make it beautiful here.” Bekele, founder and executive director of Felege Hiywot Center — a locus of hope for the neighborhood — not only believes they can, but she’s helping to make it a reality.
Felege Hiywot Center, or FHC, is the project Bekele set in motion about a half dozen years ago. It comprises nearly a block on Sheldon Avenue off 16th Street, just before the 1-70 overpass — a reminder of one cause of the neighborhood’s decline.
FHC accomplishes its goals through a multi-layered mission: to serve the urban youth of Indianapolis and orphans in Ethiopia, while providing a sense of community to second generation Ethiopians in Indianapolis. This is done primarily through using gardening as a tool to teach science and a means to connect children and others in the community to the food that sustains them. It also reveals a different reality — genuine poverty, and too often, starvation — experienced by many children in Ethiopia.
This contributes to a different sort of culture in the neighborhood, one of giving rather than taking. And for Ethiopian-born Bekele, it’s a matter of faith. “This place taught me who was in control,” Bekele says.
The center’s work is founded on a Christian sense of mission. But its reach is broad and all faiths are welcome. Bekele moved from her home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at age 18 to attend college in the United States. She worked as a chemist at Eli Lilly & Co. for 27 years, retiring to run Felege Hiywot full time — now with the help of additional staff.
A way of helping others
FHC is a thriving center of activity. Neighbors purchase produce here during the summer months that is grown by volunteers and children from the neighborhood who participate in its summer day camp program. The program offers learning experiences that extend beyond the garden.
“When we have camp, we always have a week we set aside to do kind of like a mock type of school, Bekele says. “The children will sit either on the ground, or on a two-by-four, and I will tell them, ‘Now you are in Ethiopia, and this is the school system. … Why aren’t you taking notes?’ And they say, ‘Well, you didn’t give us anything.’ And I say, ‘You see the sand in front of you?’ ”
The lesson includes a conversation about nutrition and starvation — and the kids start to understand.
When Bekele was a child in Africa, she slept on a dirt floor, along with her seven brothers and sisters. She continues to witness the ravages of AIDS there, one of the hard realities that drive so many children to the orphanage that Felege Hiywot supports. When Bekele’s own children were just 4 and 7, she took them to Ethiopia to see just how good they had it back in the United States. Although her family in Ethiopia no longer sleeps on dirt floors, Bekele made sure her kids had that experience. “We stayed three months. You’re talking about a complete conversion of my kids.”
You could almost say the center was started more than three decades ago. That’s when Bekele was earning her chemistry degree at IUPUI, at that time located at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Bekele lived in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood and walked everywhere. On her travels, she encountered school-age kids who were not in school. She decided to help them.
“I said, why aren’t you going to school?,” Bekele says. “And they’re actually telling me they’re poor. And I’m like ‘No, you’re not poor. I’m just going to have to show you where I came from.’ ”
She’s been doing ever since. Before she started FHC, she began helping out in IPS schools. She talked about science to kids who never imagined they would understand it, let alone think of making a living doing it — like Bekele.
After those early years as a college student — helping kids in the neighborhood with their homework, when transforming an “F” to a “D” was a cause for celebration — she came back to the neighborhood so she could work with kids again. This time she helped them learn about science, where our food comes from and why it’s so important to treat the earth well. Growing one’s own food is not just a way out, but a way of helping others.
Visit the Felege Hiywot Center at
1648 Sheldon St.
Indianapolis, Ind. 46218