By Jeremy Dunn
Every time a seed is planted, there lies unknown potential. With the right environment and supportive conditions, that seed can bloom into a prosperous crop that can provide for a future. This fall, Nekoma Burcham and Alena Jones hope to implement this philosophy, not only for growing healthy foods but also for giving a special group of women a second chance at life.
The co-founders of Bellfound Farm, an independent 501(c)3 organization on the southside, look to help provide at-risk young women the opportunity of long-term economic security through urban farming. Thanks to the generosity of the Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, these 18- to 24-year-old trauma survivors will be provided mental health programming, skill-building opportunities and career planning while working on the farm to offer nutritious fruits and vegetables to the Indianapolis community.
Burcham and Jones met while pursuing degrees at IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. While attending a food policy class, a panel discussion on food access issues in Indianapolis inspired the pair. Burcham recalls, “During that class, a local farmer brought up how farming knowledge is not being passed down from generation to generation in the same way that it used to be. Another expert on the panel mentioned how much land was currently sitting vacant across Marion County.” Inspired by the panel discussion, the duo sparked the idea for Bellfound Farm and was approached by a career coach with a grant opportunity.
As fate would have it, the two were awarded the 2015 NEXT Fellowship Prize, an initiative of the Women’s Fund of Central Fund with a 10-year commitment to address the need of emerging adult women. During the following two years, Burcham and Jones used the funding to research and develop their vision for Bellfound Farm before officially launching the non-profit early in 2018.
Planting the seeds
Starting in October, Bellfound Farm will accept its inaugural cohort to begin an urban farming journey. “Urban farming is growing where you are – in the city – with a focus on food. It is usually relatively small scale, with lots of different crops grown close together, much like a family garden,” Jones said. “The farm’s agricultural teacher and program integrator warns not to let its small size be misleading. There’s a lot to do, even on a small farm! We’ll grow more than 50 varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers. That means prepping the soil, planning crops and crop rotation, planting all the crops, tending and harvesting them and selling them.”
However, there is much more to the program than merely the agriculture. Bellfound Farm is also focused on growing people. “Women who come to Bellfound Farm will ground the skills they’re learning in practicum of a small business. About half of their time is spent building personal resilience and employment skills, and half on running the farm, where they can put those skills to practice.”
Bellfound hopes to support its participants by employing a full-time therapist and a full-time coach to provide mental health programming, skill-building opportunities, individualized support, career planning and community connections. “Our focus is on defusing trauma, as nine out of 10 women who are incarcerated have experienced trauma and we are providing the support a woman needs to reach economic security for herself and her family,” Burcham said. “Experiencing trauma makes people more likely to have employment difficulties and employment is the No. 1 predictor of successful re-entry.”
Innovative in its design, Bellfound Farm looks to address a variety of global issues on a local platform. In a state deeply rooted in farming, Burcham and Jones hope to follow in the footsteps of a rich legacy of Hoosier farmers through mindful planning and bringing together all the right support to allow their “crops” to flourish. Ultimately, the duo hopes to achieve multiple short and long term goals. Burcham “The long-term goal for the women involved in our program is to move from a place of vulnerability to a lifetime of economic security. We also have shorter-term goals: are we increasing food access to the community? Are the women we’re working with attaining goals and advancing their futures? Are they staying out of incarceration? There’s a lot of different measures of success,” Burcham said.
Jones sums it up beautifully. “We don’t intend to make our graduates farmers, but in farming, they can begin to craft a future story,” she said. “Maybe they discover they have a talent for sales or a love for marketing and design. That’s a great potential career path!”
Regardless of the final destination, Bellfound Farm hopes to be the soil that allows these seeds to uncover their potential and flourish into fields of opportunity.
Five questions with Bellfound Farm’s Nekoma Burcham and Alena Jones:
- What is your relationship to the southside of Indianapolis?
Burcham: I’m a lifelong Hoosier. I was born in northern Indiana, then moved to Indy when I was 18, finally settling on the southside a little over 15 years ago.
Jones: I grew up in Franklin, Indiana and have lived in Indianapolis since college.
- What led you to working with Bellfound Farm?
Burcham: I owe a big thanks to my career counselor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI, who made me aware of the NEXT Fellowship Prize from Women’s Fund of Central Indiana. If it weren’t for Kathy Hursh, we wouldn’t have put forward our grant application, which means we wouldn’t be on the verge of opening our doors today.
Jones: A passion for making a difference in the world and the belief of some key people that I could.
- If you could only have one book for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Burcham: A photobook of past memories. I think rather than reading someone else’s words, it’s more humbling and grounding to reflect back on all the great moments that have built who I am today.
Jones: Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. It’s a book about the worth of each person and how we can live together kindly and courageously.
- What is your greatest accomplishment?
Burcham: My daughter.
Jones: Working as one of the people that brought Bellfound Farm to fruition is high on my list!
- What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Burcham: More than any one piece of advice I’ve received over the years, what matters the most is the support and encouragement from friends and family that has propelled me to where I am today.