Nestled on Sheldon Street in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood of Indianapolis sits two small houses, side-by-side, that have been combined to make up the Felege Hiywot Center. Pronounced (Feh-LEH-geh HEY-what) in Ethiopian, Felege Hiywot means “looking for direction in life,” and the center’s mission, according to its website, is to serve the urban youth of Indianapolis by teaching urban farming and environmental preservation by encouraging them to embrace the virtues of community service. The center was incorporated into a nonprofit in 2004, but its roots go deep into the 1970s.
Aster Bekele, the vibrant and energetic founder and executive director of the Felege Hiywot Center (FHC), has dedicated herself to her community for nearly the last 50 years since arriving to the United States from Ethiopia in 1973 when she was 19.
Bekele enrolled at Franklin College before tranferring to IUPUI as a chemistry major, and she eventually landed a job working for Eli Lilly and Company after she graduated. But Bekele said the spark that was the beginning of what would become the Felege Hiywot Center really ignited while she was still attending college.
“I used to walk to school, and I would see so many little children on the street and I would say, ‘What are you doing on the street?’ And if they weren’t going to school, I would take them back to my house and we would start working,” she explained. “There were just a lot of things that they didn’t have. I would talk with them, and yes, they were poor, but I felt like it was more than just being poor. They were missing something.”
It was then that her focus began to shift from being a career woman to working with kids as a mentor and tutor, with the goal of helping local youth thrive and give back to their community.
“A few years later, there was a young man knocking on my door, and it was a young man named Robert who said, ‘You used to help me!’ He said he had finished high school and he was joining the Navy, but he had remembered working with me years prior and I thought how nice it was that he remembered me. I didn’t know I was doing anything,” Bekele said.
Two decades later, Bekele was still thinking about how she could continue to help students after school and find a way to get them interested in science. Bekele said it was a fourth-grade girl who raised her hand and asked the simple question that started Bekele on her current flourishing agricultural path: “Can we just plant flowers?” It took Bekele by surprise, but she took action. “I said, OK, so they want plants. I didn’t know anything about plants—I only have a chemistry background.”
Bekele’s hard work and ingenuity prevailed, the farming concept took off, and neighborhood kids became interested and engaged in her Youth Farm Initiative program. “Basically, the kids taught me how to do everything upside down,” she said. “What I had was the passion. If you have the passion, then you have whatever it takes.”
The urban farm is located at the FHC at 1648 Sheldon Street, and it is completely youth-led. It provides meaningful job opportunities for students to develop business acumen, as well as the skill set needed to grow and sell delicious crops like carrots, turnips, and collard greens.
The programs are unquestionably making a difference in the community, and the success is due largely in part to Bekele’s passion for what she does. After meeting her, it’s clear that no child she works with is a stranger. She welcomes them all with open arms, determined to bring a positive change to those who are looking for somewhere to turn that will benefit them as they continue to grow and develop.
If you are interested in volunteering at or donating to the Felege Hiywot Center, visit fhcenter.org.
Mary Farucci is an Indianapolis-based marketing professional, digital content creator, and writer with a passion for people, sharing their stories, and a strong cup of coffee. You can connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and on LinkedIn.