Cultivating Growth and Friendship: Schmidt Associates and the Felege Hiywot Center

In the bustling city of Indianapolis, a hidden gem has been nurturing and empowering neighborhood youth for decades. The Felege Hiywot Center is an amazing organization, led by visionary Founder and Executive Director Aster Bekele, who has been making great strides in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood. Deeply invested in community development and servant leadership, Bekele immigrated to Indianapolis from Ethiopia in 1973, with mostly spices in her bags rather than clothes! In 2003, she founded the Felege Hiywot Center, which in Ethiopian, means looking for direction in life. From the beginning, it’s been a pleasure being a steadfast partner in the Center’s growth and transformation. Let’s dive into their journey of collaboration and the project that will soon grace the Felege Hiywot Center’s campus.

A Blossoming Friendship
The roots of this exceptional relationship can be traced back many years, to former Schmidt Associates Architect, Partner, and friend Dean Illingworth who formed a close bond with Bekele. Their shared passion for community development and sustainable practices laid the foundation for a powerful partnership. Over time, this friendship extended to other key members of Schmidt Associates, including CEO and Principal Sarah Hempstead and myself. Together, we have embraced Bekele’s vision and committed ourselves to supporting the Center in their noble endeavors.

“In 2004, I was cleaning out weeds when this guy stopped by and asked me what I was doing.  I told him I am teaching youth science through gardening.  He sat with me at the picnic table and asked me what my vision was.  I started with $5,000 to just fix the building and as he kept saying bigger, bigger, as he had me envision a $1.6M building plan,” Bekele said.  “That was Dean Illingworth who connected me to Sarah who took my vision and drew Felege Hiywot Center’s first building plan.”

A Growing Mission
The Felege Hiywot Center’s mission revolves around teaching neighborhood youth sustainable methods of food cultivation, fostering a love for the environment, and providing vital greenspace and litter cleanup efforts in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood. For years, the Center has operated out of two modest shotgun houses, employing the surrounding grounds for farming, greenhouse activities, and composting. Students return year after year to Felege Hiywot, and many of them continue to help lead the direction of the Center. With the increasing popularity of their programming, the Center now needs a more permanent structure to accommodate a growing number of students and initiatives.

An Iterative Design Process
In late 2022 and early 2023, the Schmidt Associates team, including Project Manager Eddie Layton, Architectural Graduate James Hastings, Sustainability Design Advocate/Associate Craig Flandermeyer, Senior Interior Designer/Associate Laura Harden, Hempstead, and I, embarked on an iterative design process with Bekele and her team. The goal was to create a functional and versatile space that would not only serve as the primary entrance for the Felege Hiywot Center but also house their staff offices and a program area. This new addition will facilitate easy access to the greenhouse and existing shotgun houses, optimizing the teaching and food preparation process while creating more space for various activities.

A Commitment to Sustainable and Inspiring Designs
The collaboration has resulted in a design informed by Bekele and her team that brings natural light and privacy into their offices. The exterior of the building reflects sustainability, featuring windows that symbolize light and life growing above, and a green wall below the windows symbolizing the roots that begin life. The windows and vibrant green wall serve as a constant reminder of the environment, sustainability, and the organization’s investment in the neighborhood’s youth.

Hope on the Horizon
With the plans in place, the Felege Hiywot Center is exploring ways to secure funding including grants, and fundraising. The hope is that the new structure will be completed in time for next year’s summer programming, ushering in a new era of growth and possibilities for the Center and the community it serves.

“It’s a very exciting time at the Center, and Sarah is going to help us build,” Bekele said. “We want to be able to farm throughout the year so the students can continue to work.”

The relationship between Schmidt Associates and the Felege Hiywot Center reflects the power of collaboration and shared values. Together, we are sowing the seeds of hope and empowerment for future generations in Indianapolis. With the planned new structure, the Felege Hiywot Center will continue to flourish and serve the lives of countless young people. By providing what they need and building trust with students, the Felege Hiywot Center can introduce and continue their conversation about environmental sustainability and the virtues of community service. As we eagerly anticipate the fruition of this project, let us celebrate the enduring friendship and commitment to community development that has brought this outstanding partnership to life.

To learn more about the Felege Hiywot Center, their mission, and to donate, visit their website at fhcenter.org/seeds-of-success/.

The team will also host the Seeds of Success Gala on Friday, Oct. 20th, and a Community Open House on Saturday, Oct. 21st with American and Ethiopian food, fresh produce, and family-focused activities.

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