Listening to the rooster and petting the goats were the fun experiences my kids enjoyed the morning after our overnight stay at Heifer Ranch. Having spent my entire childhood on a working family farm, I expressed how nostalgic our visit felt when I met Operations and Volunteer Manager Diane Gunvalson for our interview. Gunvalson smiled with a knowing look in her eyes and patiently sat down to help me understand that she, the rest of the staff and hundreds of volunteers are not simply running a petting zoo.
"The ranch is a place," Gunvalson explained, "where people can come and touch a Heifer project that they may never, ever be able to see themselves." Some animals, like the cattle and hogs, look very familiar to a kid who grew up in the Ozarks. Others like the camels and water buffalo reside there to show what's happening half a world away. And yes, there's plenty of room for cattle, including the young female bovine called heifers.
Groups small and large travel to the 300-acre facility in the Ouchita Mountains west of Little Rock, Arkansas to encounter the animals, experience mild hunger pangs, and gain understanding. Sessions as short as 24-hours to week-long events immerse participants in a Global Gateway Village
. For Americans who rarely go hungry, it's a taste of life where families don't always know where their next meal will come from. For city folks, it's a chance to help with chores and learn to care for the animals.
|Water Buffalo at Heifer Ranch, USA|
A Heifer project can include anything from bees or trees to water buffalo that supply what Heifer calls the seven Ms. Gunvalson said, "When we show people for example the water buffalo we talk about the fact that those provide seven different things to a family. They provide meat and milk. They provide muscle and motivation. They provide money, materials and manure."
|Model Home in Heifer Global Village|
Heifer International's stated mission is "To work with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the Earth." Gunvalson explained that gifts of livestock given to families around the world fit into a bigger picture. "It's so much more than the animal. It might be a year into the program that they actually get the animal. It's the preparation, it's the coming together to say 'what are our values and what are our goals and what do we want to do?' and the animals are a means to those goals that they've identified. Although a person gets the animals, they don't get the animals as individuals, they get them as a part of a community self-help group."
|Diane Gunvalson, Heifer Ranch Operations and Volunteer Manager|
at a Memorial to Heifer founder Dan West
Heifer Ranch Manager Keisha Patterson spoke with me prior to our visit about the impact of the working facility, "It brings an awareness to the community and it allows them to engage in educational programs and sheds light on the causes of poverty around the world. We can then engage in ways to eliminate hunger and poverty."
Later this week: why the faithful flock here...