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Knocking Out Poverty One Gift at a Time with Heifer International

Knocking Out Poverty One Gift at a Time with Heifer International

When Ellen Brown was little, her grandfather gave her and her sister gifts from Heifer International for Christmas.

“My grandfather was was an agricultural professor at a university in Fayetteville, Arkansas, so he was a big fan of Heifer,” she recalls. “I remember one time I got a trio of rabbits. I got a hive of bees another time.”

Now that Brown is working as Heifer's Senior Specialist for Corporate Marketing Partnerships, she continues to donate to the organization.

"I work here and I’m also a donor. I think that says something," she says with a laugh. 

Since 1944, Heifer has been relying on donations to support their mission to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth.

Heifer was born out of founder Dan West’s experience as the director of an aid program during the Spanish Civil War. Tasked with handing out glasses of milk to hungry children, Heifer developed out of West’s hypothesis that aid could have a larger impact if families received a cow (or heifer) instead of individual glasses of milk.

Heifer International founder Dan West. Photo: Manchester University.

Heifer International founder Dan West. Photo: Manchester University.

Heifer's ‘teach a man to fish’ philosophy is at the heart of their ongoing work to help communities lift themselves out of poverty. From this humble idea, Heifer has helped 161 million people to date.

With 197 projects in 28 countries, Heifer is working on long-term poverty reduction programs among smallholder farmers. Their focus on this type of farmer is an effort to correct the fact that small-scale farmers make up the majority of people living in poverty globally. 

Using what they call the “Values Based Holistic Community Development” method, Heifer has 12 principles that inform their work with farmers and their families. Among them: women’s empowerment and social capital.

“With many of our projects we work primarily with women,” says Brown. “In Nepal we work exclusively with women, giving them goats, education, and training.”

For Brown, Heifer’s work in Nepal is one of the most moving projects they have underway.

“Hearing the stories of women in Nepal and see how working with Heifer has changed their lives by improving their opportunities and access  — it gives me chills, it’s amazing.”

Sharmila Shakya, a Heifer farmer in Nepal. Photo: Heifer. 

Sharmila Shakya, a Heifer farmer in Nepal. Photo: Heifer

“One of the things that is still prevalent in many places is illiteracy,” says Brown. “So not only are you in an inferior position as a woman but, when you can't read, it limits your opportunity greatly.”

Heifer projects include education and training in addition to gifts of livestock, so women who are part in their projects learn to read as part of their participation.

“For women in our projects who learn to read, it’s a whole new world,” says Brown. “They go from not being able to get from place to place because they can’t read signs or directions, to having access and being able to go to the market by themselves.”

When Brown visited a community in Guatemala with whom Heifer is working, she witnessed first-hand the impact the organization’s work is having on farmers’ lives and communities.

“We came to one village and we’d traveled several hours by car,” she recalls. “When we got there, the entire community was up on the hill — and I mean everybody! It was the most incredible sight.”

Heifer's programs in Guatemala currently include an initiative to promote rural, diversified and sustainable production systems, sustainable agricultural production, farming programs using native seeds and livestock, and more.

As part of the celebration when the Heifer team arrived in the village, Brown explains that some of the women in the village had “stayed up all night long making a special drink out of the cacao they grow there for us all to have.”

“For them to have gone to so much trouble and to be so gracious, so kind, so open, so welcoming ... it was amazing. It gets me all teared up!”

Griselda, a Heifer farmer in Guatemala. Photo: Heifer. 

Griselda, a Heifer farmer in Guatemala. Photo: Heifer

Part of what makes Heifer’s work so effective at helping entire communities (rather than just individuals and single families) is its insistence that people receiving a living gift pay that generosity forward to someone else in their community. The concept of 'Passing on the Gift' is a fundamental aspect of Heifer's approach. 

“When we work with a family,” says Brown, “they get the education, training, and the living gift. Then we hold them accountable to pass on the first female offspring (or an equivalent) from that gift. You also pass on education and training from Heifer, so that lifts another family out of poverty.”

When neighbors pass on gifts like honey bees, goats, alpacas and other flocks, they also share on the knowledge and training they receive from Heifer about caring for and maximizing the potential of the living gift.

“There's this ripple effect that starts with the donation,” says Brown. “Yes, it’s helping to lift a family out of  poverty, but it’s going to reach a lot more than just one family.”

Heifer’s mission to educate people about hunger and poverty reduction is also a fundamental part of their work here in the United States, says Brown.

“We have three locations in the U.S. where we provide educational programming that is designed to help people of all ages learn about hunger and poverty and the solutions to hunger and poverty around the world,” she says.

A little girl getting up close with some goats at one of Heifer's U.S. projects. Photo: Heifer. 

A little girl getting up close with some goats at one of Heifer's U.S. projects. Photo: Heifer

For Brown, this is where her work with Heifer has been most poignant.

“There have been a number of times when I was leading a program or tour and got to see a child wrapping their mind around these big concepts of hunger and poverty,” says Brown.

She describes a time recently, where a school had completed a fundraiser for Heifer and were visiting to the learning center in Little Rock.

“The class had done a Read to Feed fundraiser and were presenting the money they were donating,” explains Brown.

As the class was discussing how they’d be helping people feed themselves and their families,  Brown explains, she noticed a little boy “who looked troubled about it.”

“I asked him what he thought of the Read to Feed program and he said, ‘Well, it was just kind of hard to because I couldn’t stop thinking about these families’,” recounts Brown.

“He was torn up about the families that didn’t have the food they needed to be happy and healthy. He was so troubled by it, he’d had trouble concentrating on his reading for this school fundraiser. It was so sweet!”

When it comes to supporting Heifer on Tendr, Brown reinforces the long-lasting impact of a donation to Heifer.

Clementine and her son Boneri visit the family cow on their farm in Rwanda. Photo: Heifer. 

Clementine and her son Boneri visit the family cow on their farm in Rwanda. Photo: Heifer

“I’ve seen that the work that we do has real impact and creates real change. It’s not a short-term fix —  it’s a long-term solution,” says Brown.

When you chose Heifer as your charity on Tendr, you’re donating to an organization that makes sure their solutions are sustainable, both in terms of environmental impact and the ability to support communities over time.

“What I really appreciate about Heifer is that we’re finding the right solutions for the communities where we work. It’s not a cookie cutter approach," says Brown. "

We don’t try to implement the same solution in every location. We really want our approach to be holistic and be the right fit for the community.”

When it comes to making a difference with your charity registry, Brown says that people can feel confident in their ability to make a real difference in the world.

“Our work in a community may only be three to five years, but the impact will affect all future generations in that community. To have that sort of long-lasting impact through a donation is unique.”

Ready to donate? Add Heifer to your Tendr registry!

Or, create a Tendr charity registry and choose Heifer as your charity. 

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