'Like a second home': Indianapolis nonprofit teaching students life, job skills

Posted at 8:51 PM, Aug 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-01 20:51:23-04

INDIANAPOLIS — A community of young people are spending their summer in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, growing friendships and learning life skills.

"It's more than just a camp or workplace, like the feeling that you get when you're here, it's like family," Garren Chandler said.

Chandler lives in Lawrence but comes to Felege Hiywot Center for an opportunity to work and build skills for his future.

“Employability, friendship, teamwork, leadership,” Chandler said.

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“For a lot of people, this is like a second home,” Elijah Patrick said.

Patrick is a student at Brownsburg High School. He started working at the center this summer and quickly found out the need Felege Hiywot serves in the community.

“Everybody knows each other, it's a safe place, you can be who you are, you're not gonna get judged for it,” Patrick said.

A safe place. That’s a big part of the mission for founder Aster Bekele.

“So what happens is, they love it, they keep coming back,” she said.

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Aster Bekele takes pictures of students at Felege Hiywot in the Martindale Brightwood neighborhood.

Felege Hiywot programming focuses on teaching students to embrace community service, develop leadership skills, and learn how to work together to bring positive change

Before founding Felege Hiywot Center, Bekele worked in research at Eli Lilly and was tutoring IPS students in science. She said many of the students she was working with just needed a caring adult in their lives.

“I have a lot of fun. You know, as a scientist, I feel like I am doing a science discovery every day, they discover something. And that's where my energy comes from,” Bekele said.

Bekele is originally from Ethiopia. In her language, she said Felege Hiywot means “looking for direction to life.” That’s what she tries to provide, a positive direction.

“If they get angry at something? And I say, what does the scientific theory say? The question is, you're angry at this, you then decided that you want to fight? What was the outcome of that? So do you want to continue on that path?” Bekele said.

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Bekele says many of her students over the years have come back to work or volunteer at the center.

Since the beginning, Bekele said community partnerships have made the work they do possible.

Last year, the center received a grant from Lilly Endowment for $2 million to be used over 5 years. Bekele said it's helped hire several people and get materials and supplies they need to expand their programs.

This summer students attended an 8-week stem camp at the center, and some students like Chandler and Patrick were also employed.

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They worked 4 hours a day and 20 hours a week, a mix of professional development and physical work on the center’s urban farm.

“They plant different plants, potatoes, different types of herbs, different types of vegetables, that they are then able to take home to their families or sell back to the community,” Felege Hiywot Eductional Adviser, Michael Williams said.

Williams is one of Bekele’s former students. He started coming to the center when he was in 8th grade and now at 23-years-old he’s a full time employee.

He knows first hand how important the work they are doing is for the students they serve.

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Michael Williams says Felege Hiywot gave him an opportunity to plant his seed to help him grow into the adult he is today.

“To me, it’s very important because they are exposed to things that they're not exposed to at school, they're not exposed to at home, they're not exposed to on the internet,” Williams said. “It’s something that is not necessarily trendy but what we are doing here is giving them those foundational skills that then turn prepare them for life.”

Bekele said after 18 years she knows it may soon be time to retire, but because she still loves the work she’s doing, for now, she’s letting former students like Williams take the lead.

“We cannot get anything better. They grew up in the community, they know how to speak to the children to all of these students, they have the language, they have the understanding,” Bekele said.