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Alumnus turns ‘blight to light’

As a junior at IU Bloomington studying environmental management, Emma Campolattara couldn’t believe her eyes when she first arrived for her summer internship at an urban farm on the east side of downtown Gary. Curtis Whittaker. Curtis Whittaker.

“I was incredibly surprised when I turned the corner of an almost entirely blighted block to see an orchard and chickens,” she said. “After all, Gary is not necessarily known for agriculture.”

Campolattara interned at a nonprofit called Families Anchored In Total Harmony Community Development Corp., known to the locals and its organizers as Faith Farms.

It’s the brainchild of IU alumnus Curtis Whittaker, a 1995 Kelley School of Business grad who left his Big 4 accounting job in Chicago to return to the Gary neighborhood where he grew up. Now, he owns his own CPA firm and is pastoring his childhood church while working with a variety of urban partners to, as he calls it, move the area “from blight to light.”

A first-generation college student, Whittaker came to IU Bloomington to become a doctor — only to discover he couldn’t stomach the sight of blood.

Faith Farms opened its doors with just three raised beds. Faith Farms opened its doors with just three raised beds.

“That’s kind of important for doctors,” he said with a chuckle. “And then, well, I’d always liked numbers, so I decided I’d be a math teacher. But that didn’t work out either. So, I had a buddy in the business school, and he said come over here and look into finance. That’s how I wound up in accounting.”

Whittaker had never been too far away from home when he first arrived on the Bloomington campus as a Groups Scholar, but quickly made friends in his McNutt dorm, joined the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, sang in the African American Choral Ensemble and — like many other young Black men on campus during that time — was mentored by the late James Mumford.

“He was truly instrumental in not just my life, but the life of other African Americans on campus, just integrating us into campus life and taking time out for us,” he said. “He had a way of working with all students to make you feel important and special and really welcomed.

“He did that for any student, no matter where you came from, but particularly for us African American students. He was a father figure to all of us, and you knew you could always go to Doc for help.”

Whittaker fully admits that leaving his good job in downtown Chicago and moving back to Gary was a tough choice.

“But I got a call from God, and He gave me this vision for community engagement and how to do that,” he said. “And it all began with food.”

Today, Faith Farms is a USDA-certified farm that includes hoop houses for year-round growing. Today, Faith Farms is a USDA-certified farm that includes hoop houses for year-round growing.He started what would become Faith Farms back in 2013 with just three raised beds. The next year, they partnered with the city of Gary to knock down a blighted house next door and grew to eight raised beds. The third year, they got a grant from The Legacy Foundation for enough supplies and training to put up four hoop houses, which allow for year-round growing.

Now USDA-certified, the farm has grown to include ducks, goats, a fruit orchard and five bee hives. It generates about 15,000 pounds of food each year and gives a large percentage of it away. The remainder is sold at a farm stand on the property, which takes WIC vouchers and EBT cards. The farm operates a CSA as well, which allows subscribers to receive a box of vegetables every month in the summer.

As the farm grew, Whittaker knew he needed more help. So he cold-called his alma mater and wound up talking to O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs clinical assistant professor Frank Nierzwicki Jr. on the IU Bloomington campus.

Nierzwicki worked with Whittaker to set up an award-winning capstone class during the spring of 2020 and then continued this relationship in later community development classes on the Bloomington and Gary campuses. This work led to Campolattara’s internship during summer 2021.

Emma Campolattara spraying an organic insecticide on cabbages at Faith Farms. Emma Campolattara spraying an organic insecticide on cabbages at Faith Farms.“This internship was truly an amazing experience,” she said. “It allowed me to take classroom concepts and apply them in the real world. It’s one thing to learn about urban issues, but another to see them with your own eyes and listen to other people’s experiences. Mostly though, I think this opportunity helped me gain new perspectives that I hope to carry with me as I move forward in my professional career.”

The relationship between Indiana University and Faith Farms also includes Ellen Szarleta, an IU Northwest School of Public and Environmental Affairs professor who is also director of the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence there.

She connected Faith Farms with the Eco-Friendly Mobile Farm Stand project, which resulted in the farm obtaining the first such mobile stand in northwest Indiana. The farm plans to use it to deliver produce to neighborhoods challenged by food accessibility issues.

Over the summer, one of Szarleta’s students worked closely with the farm to develop a marketing plan. And this academic year, the farm is hosting an IU Northwest undergraduate student majoring in social work.

The mobile farm stand brings food to the customer. The mobile farm stand brings food to the customer.“Pastor Curtis’s work is so inspiring and brings about feelings of hope and connection at a time when we are being challenged to reflect on the importance of community and our individual responsibilities,” Szarleta said. “In addition, our students have the opportunity to see a community leader build on his educational experience at Indiana University and his personal values to transform a community. Pastor Curtis is not only physically transforming communities; he is transforming the lives of our students.”

What does Whittaker have planned next? Upcoming projects include using a grant to complete a pollinator garden built on once-blighted land that is now home to trees and plants that attract hummingbirds and bees. The next phase will include a stage and outdoor amphitheater.

He also has a dream for a community of tiny homes on the property, which could provide subsidized housing for people interested in working at the farm or learning how to become an urban farmer.

“This is our way of transforming the community around us and being the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” Whittaker said. “The more you see blight, the more you become what you see. We have a responsibility outside of our four walls to get engaged, to impact the lives of those that you might never know you were light for. It’s our faith community’s approach to transforming our neighborhood through community development and of moving from ‘blight to light.’”

Bethany Nolan is a senior communications consultant with the Office of the Vice President for Communications and Marketing. Photos courtesy of Curtis Whittaker and Emma Campolattara.