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Life Arts

Heifer International: A Different Approach to Gift-Giving

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I love everything about Thanksgiving  - those tantalizing smells wafting out of the kitchen, the festive table, the togetherness of family and friends. It’s a lot of work, but well worth it. I can’t think about this fast-approaching holiday, however, without fretting about the next up-and-coming one. Whether you celebrate Hanukah, Christmas, and/or Kwanzaa, the specter of imminent gift-giving is already in the air. Perhaps it’s the siren call of our bedeviled retailers I hear.  This article is an antidote, intended to take the sting out of giving.

Earlier this year, my daughter Ariella culled through the many catalogs that used to show up on our doorstep, uninvited. One catalog slipped under her radar and I’m glad. I can’t get over how appealing I found it, cover to cover. Recalling how Mary Poppins described  herself, I found Heifer International’s holiday catalog “practically perfect in every way”.

Heifer International is hardly the new kid on the block.  It’s been around for more than sixty years and has a stellar track record. It all started when founder Dan West, a farmer from the Midwest, was a relief worker in Spain during their civil war (1936-39).  As he doled out the limited milk rations that could determine life or death, he suddenly realized what was to become the founding principle of Heifers for Relief (later Heifer International):  “These children don’t need a cup, they need a cow”.  The hungry, then and now, need long-term solutions.  Handouts provide momentary relief, but nothing lasting. HI’s goal has remained the same, over the years – eradicating world hunger by converting the homeless and hopeless into strong, self-sufficient family units that help others as they provide for themselves. All of this sharing and caring happens within the context of respecting and even improving our natural environment.

Since 1944, HI has extended a hand to more than 10,000,000 families in 125 countries across the globe.  This is done meticulously, one family at a time.  The project offers extensive, hands-on training in agriculture and animal husbandry, preparing the participants before they receive the livestock that will dramatically change their fortunes.  There’s an  adage attributed to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” HI is Lao Tzu’s philosophy in action.

All families involved in the Heifer project agree to “pass on the gift” by supplying one or more of their animal’s offspring to neighboring families in need.  It is a central principle as well as a precondition for participation.  Local conditions are carefully evaluated; families might receive llamas, water buffalo, camels or beehives, instead of the less exotic but equally useful chickens, ducks, geese, cows, pigs, rabbits and donkeys. A water buffalo will allow a lucky farmer to quadruple the amount of rice he could plant without the animal’s help.  Llamas are disease resistant, require little care, and, like sheep, can live in mountainous areas unsuitable for farming.  Both llamas and sheep provide wool for spinning, weaving and selling. Pigs eat rotten produce that otherwise would be thrown out, so they are cheap to raise.  A sow produces as many as 16 piglets each year, each of them growing to more than 200 pounds in six months.  105 rabbits given to four families in China in 1985, quickly multiplied since and became four million, benefiting many more families and whole communities along the way.

Initially, I thought that HI’s activities were restricted to third-world countries. I considered this a flaw in what was, otherwise, a fabulous organization. In perusing their website, however, I was delighted to learn that many of HI’s 867 active projects are happening in  more than half of our 50 states. Checking out a few of these American projects, I ran across one going on right here in Chicago, where I live.  
The Growing Home Urban Farm will train 66 low-income and homeless Chicagoans to raise money and healthy food in an  urban garden. Participants will learn marketing, nutrition and general life skills. They will provide nutritious, fresh food in neighborhoods where quality produce is scarce.  Participants will also keep honeybees and 25 chickens for eggs and training purposes.  The project will be a model for other urban farms, and participants will share their new knowledge and skills with seven groups hoping to start similar projects.

Part of the beauty of this program is how families taking part can so quickly feel its positive effects.  And, how we donors gain as much, if not more, through the simple act of giving. HI sends a lovely gift card to the recipients of your choice, telling of your gift and about the heifer project.  This allows those on your gift list to have all the benefits of participating in this project without doing a thing.  I recommend Heifer International as a terrific antidote to all that negative energy out there. Through HI, we recognize that we can still make a difference. And that’s mighty empowering.

For those who care about such things, the beautifully laid-out catalogue is studded with celebrities.  I got a kick out of seeing Walter Cronkite twice within its pages -  once clutching a small yellow chick, the other time posing with a wooly sheep. Cronkite is a fixture from my youth, back in the days when journalism was an honorable profession and we knew whom we could trust.  He was, and remains, a symbol of the utmost integrity so his endorsement carries weight with me.

If there is one thing I could give to the struggling people of the world it would be self-reliance.  Everyone deserves the dignity of providing for themselves and their families.  That’s why I support Heifer International. 

And that’s the way it is.

***                                            ***                                            ***
Heifer International has five hands-on learning centers spread across the US. They have also developed educational programs for religious schools and other groups.  Those with wanderlust can satisfy their love of travel by visiting various HI projects in far-flung locations.  Check out this fabulous project and I guarantee it will put a spring in your step and generate some enthusiasm for gifting those hard-to-please friends and family members.  It’s difficult to imagine anyone not being pleased to receive such a gift.  I know I would. While donations for certain gift animals or packages can be quite costly, you can participate for as little as $10. I have a strong feeling that if you start at entry level now, within a year or two, you will have increased your involvement and brought friends and family along with you.  You can be a wonderful illustration of the ripple effect at work.  All that for ten dollars? These days, I doubt you’ll  find a better bargain.


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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