NewsPublic AffairsBiography & Profiles / July 1, 2014

Growing In A New Direction

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Sam Klemet
Growing In A New Direction

It’s a hot and humid Tuesday morning in Indianapolis.  Not even noon and temperatures are in the mid 80s and with the sun now just starting to poke through the clouds, it feels much warmer.

But for hours, Duane Pulliam, 19, has been outside on his hands and knees weeding and putting soil in plant beds. 

"We grow peppers, onions, potatoes.  We've got some squash. I think we have zucchini, sweet potatoes, corn, carrots, a couple fruits - some apples, some grapes, a couple blueberries," said Pulliam.  "The works."

Pulliam is constantly wiping sweat from his forehead and face, but is accustomed to the hard work. For the past six years, Pulliam has gardened at the Felege Hiywot Center at 16th and Sheldon.

"I usually get out here around 8:45 a.m.  Work hours start from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the farm," he said.  "I've had no landscaping skills whatsoever, but here, I've gained a nice little skill set."

It’s Pulliam’s first year as a supervisor at the center.  He’s come back to work with the youth here for the summer after his freshman year at Indiana State.

Pulliam calls the center a place of refuge and credits it with keeping him away from what could have been a destructive future.

"This isn't the best neighborhood.  That's what we initially started the camp for just to get the youth out of the streets," he said.  "I figure if I wasn't here, I don't know, maybe I'd be in a gang or something."

But instead, Pulliam is getting his hands dirty in more productive ways and growing plants and a life of value.

Over the past decade, more than 1,500 Indianapolis young people have participated in education programs at the Felege Hiywot Center.

To understand how it became a go to place them, you have understand the woman who created it, Aster Bekele.

"Felege Hiywot Center means looking for direction to life," said Bekele.

This summer, the center has 200 campers and 24 paid high school and college workers.

But even at 60, Bekele is arguably the most active.  She moves from plot to plot helping with gardening projects stopping only to provide direction.

"They keep me young," she said.  "A lot of new ideas.  They have energy.  They actually give me a lot of energy.  So, that keeps me going and I love it.  I don't even know how to explain it.  It's just like when people take energy drinks, that's how they get me going."

Bekele grew up in Ethiopia, which is why she says the heat doesn’t bother her, only the Indiana humidity.

She came to Indianapolis 40 years ago to study chemistry in college and says one of the first things she noticed was the difference in crime here compared to in her native country.

"There was a person that stabbed somebody in the street when I was walking and I actually went up to him and said 'why did you do that,'" she said.  "Everyone was running away from him but me.  So, people thought I was crazy."

Crazy enough to start reaching out to those who were most vulnerable, children.

Bekele walked to her college classes and on her route made friends with the young people, volunteering to help with their school work or any other problems they had.

Through those experiences, Bekele discovered her life’s passion and committed to helping Indianapolis youth find their way.

She created the Felege Hiywot Center nearly a decade ago to provide young people a place to seek new opportunities and keep them away from a life of crime.

"A lot of them would not be doing active anything," she said.  "They need to do the right thing.  A lot of them tell me they'd be on the street not doing anything.  They'd be at home playing video games or just out on the street."

But, even a woman who has given her life to ending youth violence in Indianapolis hasn’t escaped being a victim.

One night in May, Bekele received the worst phone call of her life.  Her 10-year-old granddaughter, Hadessa, had been shot and was in the hospital.

"What was amazing was to see her laying there," said Bekele fighting back tears.  "Through all these years, I thought I understood what was happening in this community and what the children were feeling - no I did not.  What I felt that day, I was going to fall apart.  I thought I was going to die."  

Hadessa was hit by an errant bullet from a shootout between two neighbors.  Ten bullets pierced through her bedroom. One hit the pillow her sister was sleeping on and another hit Hadessa in the leg.

Seeing her granddaughter lying in a hospital made Bekele think of all the children she’s worked with at the center.

"I just cried like crazy.  I started going back through flashes of all of the children who got killed and their families," she said.  "The whole week was a nightmare."

Hadessa survived and is recovering. She is doing so well she skips through the halls of the Felege Hiywot Center helping her grandmother as one of the camp workers.

Bekele is still shaken by what happened to her granddaughter and says it reinforced why the work at the center is so important.

She says there needs to be more places around the city where young people can go and develop life skills to get away from crime.

Bekele believes the growth that comes with working together in the garden, under the hot summer sun, is an experience the young campers and workers can use to plant a brighter future for not only themselves, but the rest of the city.

"I really feel like it starts here with the garden," said Bekele.  "You grow something because you can go into the environment, you can go into math and science, you can be an engineer, you can be a salesperson, you can be a marketing person."

"They can do all of it here and then they can branch out and be where they want to go, where they want to be."

For now, Felege Hiywot Center is exactly where Bekele’s 200 campers want to be this summer.