An employee of Heifer International checks the health of plants that will be sold through the CSA program.
Fighting World Hunger
Heifer Village Educates and Fortifies Since 1971
By Dwain Hebda
Walking onto the Heifer Village campus in the shadow of Little Rock’s Clinton Presidential Center is like entering another world. A beautiful glass and steel building—home to Heifer International—soars skyward, a sleek big sister to the low-slung Village building next door.
Inside Heifer Village, people take their lunch in the cafe or browse the internationally-sourced items in the gift shop. All year long, at virtually any time of the day, children are everywhere. Wide-eyed and curious, they delight in the Village’s interactive displays depicting life in foreign lands, bringing the world just a little bit closer to their door.
“We have thousands of kids that come through every year and do programming or come with their families,” said Ellen Brown, campus operations manager. “That really focuses on trying to plant the seed of one, helping them realize that different people live in different ways in different parts of the world. But also, [it shows them] that they can be part of changing a life or helping a family that is suffering in poverty.”
“We have kids whose classrooms or for their birthday will raise money for Heifer and come and donate it because they’ve learned what an impact that can really have for a family.”
There’s a strange duality to Heifer International. On the one hand, it’s one of the most-recognized and well-respected charities on earth, directly or indirectly impacting 2.1 million families at home and abroad in 2017 alone. Heifer has had a presence in Arkansas since 1971 and been a fixture in downtown Little Rock since 2006, open to all who wish to walk the grounds, have lunch or get involved.
The Heifer International headquarters in downtown Little Rock is a platinum LEED-certified building that uses 52 percent less energy than comparably sized buildings.
On the other hand, even long-time Arkansans probably have little clue how extensive the downtown campus is. Behind the platinum LEED-certified skyscraper and just down a path from the Village lie greenhouses and pens of livestock all meant to illustrate the stock and trade of the organization, which is to foster self-sustaining communities throughout the world in the most environmentally-sensitive manner possible.
“Heifer’s mission is to work with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the earth,” Brown said. “We’re working all over the world to ensure that people have not just food to eat, but that they become self-reliant so that they can take care of themselves, that they can support themselves.”
Brown emphasizes that working to help a family support themselves in a way that also allows the family to maintain or regain their dignity is an integral part of Heifer’s mission.
The expansiveness of the organization is matched only by the audaciously simple premise of its founder, Dan West, an Indiana farmer. A relief worker during the Spanish Civil War, he handed out cups of powdered milk to war refugees, and seeing the same faces day after day inspired him to, in his words, “Give them a cow, not a cup.” Three years later West’s organization Heifers for Relief did just that, shipping 17 heifers to Puerto Rico. Five years after that, the first U.S. project distributed dairy cattle to 25 families in Cotton Plant and Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
As the organization grew its mission, the need for space for managing the animals led Heifer in 1971 to purchase 1,200 acres of farmland in Perry County. There, a livestock center called Heifer Ranch was established to breed, raise and hold animals for shipment, the inventory of which quickly expanded to include goats, chickens and pigs. The group relocated its headquarters to Arkansas shortly thereafter, a move solidified with the completion of the downtown campus.
An employee at Heifer Ranch explains the process of keeping and caring for pasture-raised pigs.
“We made a very conscious decision to stay here in Arkansas and here in Little Rock,” Brown said. “Since the 1970s, it definitely has come up, you know, should we move. But we love being here and we want to stay here. It does work for us and we have so many roots here; it also gives us an opportunity to bring other people here to Arkansas.”
Sprinkled in among the thousands of visitors are hundreds of Heifer International employees, both locally based and those visiting the headquarters from the group’s many international locations. Brown said unlike the early days when much of operations had to be done from afar, the group has employed a model of maintaining a presence in the global areas where it serves families.
But as the world is a very big place, the lion’s share of the work in growing and managing the organization’s mission locally springs from the beneficiary families themselves, of which Heifer has directly served 32 million worldwide since 1944.
“One of our cornerstones is passing on the gift,” Brown said. “With every family that we work with, we hold them accountable to pass on their first female livestock offspring to somebody else in the community, as well as all the education and training they received.”
Alpacas are just one of the animals raised and donated to families in need across the world.
“It’s really wonderful because that project partner becomes a donor with Heifer and socially, they become a trainer in the community. They’re helping to lift another family out of poverty which is really an amazing thing for our families to be able to participate in. They love to do it. It benefits the families and it also increases the reach of the work that we do many, many times over.”
“I think that’s borne out of hope and vision for a better life and future for themselves and their community and their families,” Brown explains.