It’s a simple idea: Instead of giving milk to a poverty-stricken family, give them a milk goat. In addition to the original goat and the milk it produces, eventually they’ll get little goats. There, say the believers at Heifer International, lies the path out of poverty.
“The secret behind Heifer is that animals reproduce,” said spokesman Ray White. “It’s the ultimate return on investment. You don’t just get a copy, you get the next generation animal. It’s brilliantly simple. You kind of wonder why someone didn’t think of it before.”
The man who did think of it first was Indiana farmer and relief worker Dan West. Delivering supplies to refugees of the Spanish Civil War — seeing the people he helped wind up hungry and desperate again as soon as the aid ran out — West hit upon the idea that would eventually change the lives of millions: “Not a cup, but a cow.” Soon after World War II, West began shipping cows, pigs and goats around the world, many going to the devastated countries that had once been America’s enemies.
Almost 70 years later, West’s simple idea is still going strong. This year’s winner of the coveted $1 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, Heifer has agents working in more than a hundred countries, where they train people in sustainable farming techniques, methods to maintain water and topsoil, and how to raise and care for everything from alpacas to silkworms. Last year, they came within striking distance of $60 million in donations, 70 percent of which came from individual donors.
For Little Rock, the most visible sign of Heifer’s success is going up right now near the Clinton Presidential Center, on land where a flock of tapped-out industrial buildings once squatted on polluted dirt: a new $16 million, 97,000-square-foot international headquarters.
Though officials say the staff’s fondness for the city — and its low cost of living — played a big role in keeping the charity in Little Rock after it outgrew its old space a few years back, the placement of Heifer’s new HQ as a neighbor to the Clinton Presidential Center was no accident of real estate. Jo Luck, president and CEO of Heifer since July 1992, was Gov. Bill Clinton’s first cabinet appointee, serving as the executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism for more than a decade. Too, the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation and Little Rock city planners heavily courted Heifer for development near the library site, not only because the two tourist-friendly attractions will draw on each other for visitors, but also in the hopes that the Clinton library and Heifer will eventually serve as the foundation for a “non-profit corridor,” a group of philanthropic organizations clustered between the River Market district and the Little Rock National Airport.
Heifer’s new headquarters will be a good start in that direction. Utilizing “green” construction and energy-saving techniques such as rainwater recycling and solar heating, the semi-circular building will eventually be the hub of a cultural and educational complex known as the Heifer International Center, which officials project will host upward of 250,000 visitors a year. Built in three stages and tentatively scheduled for completion by the end of the decade, the $64 million center will eventually cover around 26 acres along the Arkansas River, with park-like gardens, a welcome center, conference rooms, restaurants, exhibit and educational space, wetlands, and a gift shop.
The final phase of the development, however, might be the most innovative: the 10-acre Global Village, a scaled-up big brother to a smaller site on display at Heifer’s Perryville ranch and livestock breeding facility. Plans currently on the drawing board for the Little Rock site envision a central, manmade mountain complete with waterfall (the interior of the mountain will be hollow, with plans calling for animal care facilities and classroom space inside). Clustered around the mountain will be eight “villages” meant to represent the geographic areas where the charity is currently working: Ecuador, Guatemala, Cameroon, South Africa, Indonesia, China, India and Romania. A separate pavilion will discuss Heifer’s efforts in North America. In addition to replicas of traditional structures, each village will include livestock animals typically seen in the rural areas of each country and a display room for art and exhibits. Planners say the goal of each village is to immerse visitors in the culture of a given country and to show the hardships encountered by those living in the Third World.
“We haven’t worked all the kinks out, but we definitely want to have people (demonstrate native skills),” said Katy Montgomery, manager of the Global Village project for Heifer. “We want to make this a live experience, where you can get that feeling that you’re there.”
Montgomery said that while many Americans believe hunger is unavoidable, since the 1970s, the world has produced enough food for everyone. She said the new Heifer International Center and the Global Village will be a force for changing that misconception.
“Heifer believes that if we get enough people involved we can create this movement, that we really can end it,” Montgomery said. “The Global Village is important because we can educate a large amount of people about this.”
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