Aster Bekele’s love for science and Martindale-Brightwood grew at the same time, one feeding the other through decades of advocacy and education.
Bekele was 19 years old when she came to America from Ethiopia in the early ‘70s. She met her late husband working a summer job at Eli Lilly and attended classes in the science department at IUPUI.
That’s when Bekele started helping younger students with their homework. She and her husband lived on the other half of a double house his parents had a block west of Frederick Douglass Park, and she worked regularly with a handful of kids in the area.
Bekele got her wake-up call a few years later when a young man asked if she remembered him. He was one of the kids Bekele used to help, and now he was a high school graduate and in the Navy.
“Oh my gosh,” she thought. “I actually helped?”
Now, in her late 60s, Bekele is a bona fide leader in the Martindale-Brightwood community — whether it’s through science, beautification, food security or connecting the generations of people who call these neighborhoods home.
She started Felege Hiywot Center (pronounced “HEY-what”) in 2004 as an after-school program at Indianapolis Public Schools #74. It got big enough that Bekele retired early from Eli Lilly in 2007 and started utilizing a property she purchased a few years earlier near the corner of 17th and Sheldon streets, which is where the center is today.
One of Bekele’s biggest goals is to connect students to the community around them. She remembers listening to elders tell their stories when she came to America and wants young people to have that same experience.
“I’m just glad where I’m at,” Bekele said. “I appreciate all those elders who just sat there and talked with me and made me feel at home.”
The center is limited right now because of the pandemic. There have been up to 40 participants at a time in the past, Bekele said, but recently there have only been around 10.
The center includes the Youth Farm Initiative, where high school students grow crops and learn about service, leadership and teamwork. The youth-led farm program also incorporates language arts, math and social studies.
Bekele learned in the early days of her community involvement that it’s difficult to get teenagers to care about something if they aren’t interested. It needs to be fun, she said, so they started looking at the science of lemonade, singing, things that got them excited.
Naomi Davis, who joined the program in eighth grade and is now a sophomore at Purdue University, said Bekele is a “booster” for the Martindale-Brightwood community. She doesn’t try to take over what everyone else is doing; she’s mostly there to support and get young people involved.
Davis still works at the center when she has time and said youth are encouraged to attend One Voice Martindale-Brightwood meetings to see what they can do to help the organization.
In 2014, students gathered input from community elders before they helped build Unity Park, which has garden beds and a gathering space for residents.
Unity Park is part of the physical change Bekele and Felege Hiywot Center have brought to the area in partnership with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB), which nominated her for the Cox Conserves Heroes Award earlier this year.
“We’re really proud of her and so grateful and appreciative,” said Joseph Jarzen, VP of program strategy at KIB.
Bekele didn’t win the national award but did win the Midwest portion, which came with a $10,000 award to be donated to an environmental nonprofit. She chose KIB.
Plus, Bekele said, the exposure that came to the center just because she was nominated and made it to the national stage could be a big boost as she continues finding ways to connect students to their community.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.