Voice of the Client: Nekoma Burcham, Bellfound Farm

CORE Planning Strategies is working with R&B Architects and Capitol Construction Services to help a new nonprofit organization complete its facilities for an urban farm that helps at-risk women reach long-term economic security. Bellfound Farm, an initiative of the Women's Fund of Central Indiana, will include two group homes, 18 acres of fields, a greenhouse, and a retail center. Nekoma Burcham, chief executive officer, founded the organization along with chief operating officer Alena Jones. We asked Nekoma to talk about the mission of Bellfound Farm—including the story behind its name—and some of the lessons she has learned while along the way.

How was Bellfound Farm founded?

Bellfound Farm was made possible by the Women’s Fund of Central Indiana and their NEXT Fellowship, which provides support for social entrepreneurs who are helping women between 18 to 24 reach self-sufficiency. We proposed the idea of using farming as a therapeutic space and catalyst for economic security.

The idea stemmed from the healing process of playing in the dirt. I learned about the grant while working at IUPUI as an advocate for student veterans. Information was circulating about what was helping veterans deal with trauma, and farming and being outdoors kept bubbling to the top. We work with women involved in the criminal justice system, and most of them deal with trauma prior to incarceration. Diffusing that trauma is critical to gaining economic security.

Indianapolis had also been named among the nation’s worst food deserts, so there was a lack of food alongside people who needed to heal. They can do so in the dirt, which has natural chemicals that function like antidepressants. All of those things came together to form Bellfound.

In addition to the experience of working on the farm, what other services does Bellfound provide?

Our program is for the long haul, because poverty isn’t a quick fix. Women can live with us for up to two years. We set a foundation for moving out of survival mode and provide them with housing and food so they can gain clarity, work, and save money for a deposit on an apartment or car. A coach and a therapist will work with them to build their plans and future stories. After they move from the farm, we’ll offer networking and coaching for up to five years. We don’t necessarily intend for the women to become farmers, but they can experience a lot with the diversity a farm offers, from logistics to marketing.

Tell us more about the name “Bellfound.”

We were inspired by the art of metalsmithing, because while many crafts require a pristine raw material, metalsmithing doesn’t work that way. You use what you have and turn it into what you need. These women have strengths, resiliency, and grit—it’s about retooling and knowing how to use what you have to get to where you need to go. In exploring the metal arts, we discovered bellfounding, the art of making bells, and there are many parallels to what we’re doing. In medieval times, bell makers used dirt as a safe space to work with the molten metal. In addition, when you’re in a place of vulnerability and survival, it’s hard to realize you have a voice and a future story. Bells have a voice; they make themselves known. That’s the purpose of Bellfound—helping these women choose their own path and make their own voices.

What have you learned through the process of preparing Bellfound Farm?

Be honest with yourself about how hard it’s going to get when you’re getting something off the ground. It’s important to know early on what your north star is why you’re doing what you’re doing. These women inspire us. They push through, and that’s what keeps us going.

Surround yourself with honest people who can be your sounding board. People like CORE, friends, and mentors have all been important. There’s no way for one individual to know everything needed to get something like this off the ground. Have a good network and support base of people bought in to your cause—valued stakeholders who keep you centered and checked.

How has CORE provided value to you as you move through the process of getting your facilities ready?

Deb is a super hero and has surrounded herself with amazing humans. Her wonderful team has got our backs and has guided us through the process so we can focus on our mission. It never feels transactional and always feel supportive. Getting permits and dealing with construction—it’s a whole separate language, and that’s where CORE shines. They’re our translators, our champions, and our guard rails.

How can the public support your efforts?

We’re a diverse farm, with 50 different fruits, vegetables, and flowers. We’ll offer produce at our marketplace on Meridian Street and through a community-supported agriculture program. Register on our website, where you can also donate and sign up for volunteer opportunities.

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