2014 marked the second year that School on Wheels awarded an outstanding educator with the Education Champion award. The Education Champion award recognizes an individual who has devoted his or her time, expertise and focus in supporting youth and championing education. Both traditional and non traditional educators with more than five years experience directly working with youth in the state of Indiana can be nominated for this annual award.
This year, Aster Bekele, Founder and Executive Director of the Felege Hiywot Center in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, took home the award. Aster, originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, moved to the United States in 1974 and later pursued a chemistry degree at IUPUI. Following graduation she began her career as a chemist at Eli Lilly & Co. which spanned a total of 27 years.
I first became aware of Aster and the work she was doing back in 2004 through many neighborhood and community council meetings. Sitting in meeting after meeting, I heard about this woman that as many put it, “walked the walk.” I was told she was teaching youth living in poverty about their community and the beauty that he or she could create through one simple seed. Aster wasn’t an outsider to this community. She lived in the neighborhood and was surrounded by the same poverty, violence and crime. The difference was she could converse with her young neighbors about a different level of poverty, coming from Ethiopia where famine and starvation was a reality. She changed their messaging or thoughts of themselves as underprivileged to being fortunate compared to Ethiopian children.
Later on I had the opportunity to work alongside Aster on an initiative that would bring artistic experiences to her students during a summer camp. Through several partner meetings I learned exactly what our judges reviewing the numerous Education Champion nominations picked up on right away. Aster was not your traditional educator, she was not trained to teach but she has the natural ability to engage youth. As she puts it, “It is one thing to get youth involved, another to get them engaged. I feel getting them engaged is providing independence to learn by experience. The driving force of a sustainable community starts with youth engaged in planning, execution and learning from their experience.” This belief led to what is now a youth-led farm that helps feed the Martindale-Brightwood community.
While Aster is teaching her students about science, nature, food and culture she is also helping them understand how to provide for themselves and their family, give back to their community and maybe one of the most important messages of all; we all have the ability to change our landscape both mentally and physically.
The Felege Hiywot Center teaches gardening skills to urban youth of Indianapolis. The goal is for each youth participant to develop gardening skills, an awareness of nature, a commitment to environmental preservation, and an ability to make nutritious food a reality. It also connects youth to a different type of poverty by shedding light on the hardships children and their families experience in Ethiopia on a daily basis.