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Progress happens 1 step at a time

Progress happens 1 step at a time
Progress happens 1 step at a time
Teenagers work in a vegetable garden, despite rainfall, near the Felege Hiywat Center in Indianapolis. Submitted photo
Judy O'Bannon
Judy O’Bannon

Any day now as I turn on the evening news, I expect to see the United States Surgeon General’s health warning plastered across the bottom of my screen: ‘Warning: watching the news may be hazardous to your health.’
Catastrophes, both man-made and of natural causes, have become common place. Humans have generated mass shootings, white supremacy marches, sexual assaults on women, opiate epidemics and loose threats of nuclear war. Nature has stormed in with earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and fires. In truth, probably all of these are a mix of the results of nature and man together on a rampage.
If the news of today itself is not enough to depress the healthiest of us, what about the abundance of television commercials for drugs that attack a multitude of conditions? They bring our attention to the frailty of humans. I question whether my future looks like one big doctor’s office and a life of pain. After the ads have cited the crippling affects of a condition or disease, they list numerous possible side effects ‘ negative, to boot ‘ of the suggested cures. And, oh yes, there are plenty of accompanying ads for legal help in getting medical care or insurance to pay for it.
New national polls find that many citizens are feeling hopeless and depressed. An increasing number of responders have said our country is going in the wrong direction. Self-help magazines and professional medical experts alike suggest that exercise, meditation and good eating habits are needed to combat our current anxiety.
I had been contemplating producing a new television program in my series for public broadcasting that addresses the environment. Somehow, I just couldn’t get myself to wade through the often negative controversy about the nature, cause and extent of climate change.
My friend, Dr. Carol Johnston, who is an environmental theologian, suggested we simply feature the positive things that are already taking place to help sustain a healthy environment. She has been actively involved with many individuals and groups that she thought filled the bill.
So, off we went with our television camera to visit the Felege Hiywat Center in Indianapolis. We arrived in one of those inner-city neighborhoods that has more vacant lots than boarded up houses and more boarded houses than occupied ones. It sits at the end of a once busy street that is now abruptly cut off by a major highway. Before we had left home, I questioned whether the kids would come to the center and work in the garden as it was raining. The answer was that it was fall break at the high school and they had no other place to go.
I thought of my own neighborhood where kids went to a sport’s practice every free moment or plopped down in front of a television or computer.
Sure enough, when we arrived at the center, there in the vegetable garden were 10 older teens wearing long plastic raincoats as they harvested the robust kale and remaining tomatoes. I asked Aster Bekele, the founder of the program, if she had called them and alerted them to our visit. No, she assured us; they came every day during their fall break and each Saturday all year long.
Aster, the director, is about five feet tall and maybe in her 70s. She is Ethiopian and had worked as a chemist at Eli Lilly & Co. pharmaceutical for years until her retirement in 2004. She came to this place at the end of the road and figured out how to start the rehabilitation of a neighborhood by tending to the youth. She asked the kids what they thought about their neighborhood to which they replied it was ‘ugly.’ Next, she asked them what to do about it, and they said fix up the old buildings on the lot and at least plant some flowers.
With volunteers and hard work, they renovated two beat-up old ‘shotgun’ houses that now contain a meeting-dining room, a kitchen, a science lab and storage.
When the kids came in from the garden during our visit, they sat around a table, drank Ethiopian tea and discussed with the newly hired ‘farm manager’ how to make a recent community festival sustainable rather than just a one-time party.
I was amazed with the interaction during the brain storming. They stated they wanted to be brought into future planning for the event rather than just selling their vegetables in a stand that day. They pushed themselves to discuss desired outcomes and even examined what ‘gentrification’ as opposed to rehabilitation meant.
The farm manager didn’t let them off with broad goals. No, the kids made a good list of concrete things they could do to help make a year-long strong community. They had been in discussion for two hours before they took a lunch break and declared they were ‘going to set out a real action plan after they had eaten.’
There are a lot of people in our own communities who are actively committed to making life better. Look around Harrison County for a group trying to make a positive difference in the future and join one. It will give you back your sense of optimism and hope.
Progress is one step at a time, and grass-roots community betterment is a huge step and so rewarding to everyone.