The Holiday Gift that Pays It Forward
By Randy Peyser



If you are looking for a special gift this season that no one on your list already has, or if you are fed up with the meaningless commercialization of the holiday season, here is an opportunity to give a gift that is not only meaningful, but which will keep on giving.

Heifer International provides livestock animals for poverty-stricken families in underdeveloped nations to help them become self-sufficient. In operation since the mid-forties, their model is implemented in 51 countries around the world. Strategic to their success is a “Pay It Forward” requirement, by which individuals who receive a livestock donation must give the firstborn offspring of that animal to another family, and thus, contribute in some small way to the ending of the cycle of hunger and poverty.

Through the Heifer Gift Catalog, (, you can contribute to the ending of poverty and world hunger through the purchase of an honor card that goes toward a livestock animal that will be donated to a family around the world.

Below is an interview with Ray White, Public Information Director for Heifer International.

Randy Peyser: Can you provide an overview of Heifer?

Ray White: Heifer is an international developmental organization that has become a full-fledged holistic solution to ending world hunger and poverty. We teach individuals and communities how to do the right kinds of development to get beyond the poverty trap. For example, we use a community’s own value system to come up with strategic plans that will then lift up the entire community.

RP: Where are these communities?

RW: They are in 51 countries around the world, including Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America — from Canada, through Mexico and into Central America. For example, we might go into rural villages in Guatemala, Peru, Uganda, Tanzania, China, or in Eastern Europe.

RP: How are communities uplifted?

RW: When a community does not have any resources and individuals in that community are making incomes averaging $300 a year, it is hard for them to start a business. But if somebody gives them a livestock animal, like a dairy goat or a dairy cow, they can use that animal to become self-reliant.

The genius behind Heifer is that we not only make sure the families who receive these animals are going to be successful by providing the right kind of training and support, but we also require they pass on that animal’s first offspring so others in the community share in the benefits. We call it, “Passing on the Gift”. This feature also allows everyone involved to keep their dignity, as all of us are viewed as equals under the Heifer model. In fact, we once did a study that showed we get about six pass-ons for every animal we provide.

RP: Tell me about some of the families you have helped.

RW: I met a family in a little town in Western Uganda called Kisinga. They had seven children, one of whom was a little girl named, Beatrice. In the early ‘90’s they received one dairy goat, and they turned that goat into a way for Beatrice to go to school. At the time, she was nine years old and doing adult work. She really wanted to go to school, but her family couldn’t afford it. When they started caring for the goat, they made a little income so Beatrice could go to school. Today, she is attending college in Connecticut.

RP: How did the goat enable Beatrice to go to school?

RW: We give people animals that have recently been bred, so they will reproduce almost immediately and start giving milk, which can be sold or drunk. Actually, we say there are “7 M’s” that come from livestock — milk, meat, muscle (for drafting power), money (through the sale of products), materials, motivation (which leads to hope), and manure (for in-creasing crop production), which means there are many ways to have success and increase incomes using livestock as a base.

Another person I met was Ren Xuping in Cheng Du, China. He received several breeding pairs of rabbits some years ago and created a business from them, building a rabbit school and teaching people how to raise rabbits. Now he is a millionaire. His nickname is “Tutsi Wan”, which means the “Rabbit King.” His wife, “Tutsi Wan Ho”, is the “Rabbit Queen.”

RP: I noticed on that Heifer is responsible for a huge amount of projects around the globe.

RW: That is true. However, we use the same model consistently.

It is  called “The Cornerstones Model of Values-Based Planning and Development. We have a handbook that explains how we do our projects, all of which involve a good deal of strategic planning. First, we offer a training whereby people come together in the community to identify their core values. Once they have listed their core values, we show them how to use their values in a very intentional way to create strategic business plans. In development, it is essential to get this part right or your project will fall apart later.

We have our own list of central values — caring and sharing, animal well-being, sustainability, self-reliance, improved animal management, nutrition, accountability, genuine need and justice, improving the environment, full participation, training and education, passing on the gift, gender equality and family focus.

In Africa, they added spirituality, saying it was their strongest value. Some said, “If you get that right, you don’t have to worry about anything else, because it will take care of itself.” We are secular and we don’t push any religion, but we recognize that in communities, having any kind of spiritual component improves the quality of the whole community organization.

We also believe gender equity is a significant factor because in the economic lives of people around the world women’s work is not valued. Women are oppressed in many places, but things improve when gender equity is realized.

RP: Who do you approach when you go into a community?

RW: We don’t approach anybody; we wait to be approached.

RP: Why is that?

RW: It is an indicator that a community is ready to get serious about making it work. Many organizations have promised to make changes for poverty-stricken people in places like Africa, and others have donated money to these organizations in the hope of change, but the long-term results have been lacking. So there is a good degree of skepticism as to whether a program can make a real difference. But once we break through that resistance, things really take off, because the plan works so well.

RP: How do people find you?

RW: Mostly through word of mouth. Someone might notice a particular village a few miles away from their village has suddenly become successful, or a farmer who might have received a dairy cow from us visits relatives elsewhere and tells them about the program. In many instances, we have helped villagers who went on to help villagers in other communities. They passed on the gift and there would be a whole village out there that was benefiting from Heifer International and we didn’t even know about it.

RP: Who started this program?

RW: During the Spanish Civil War, a man named Dan West was feeding orphans on both sides of the war through the American Friends Service Committee. Milk was limited, and he was put in the terrible position of having to decide which child would get milk and which one wouldn’t, knowing that whoever didn’t get milk had very little chance of survival. One day, he was sitting under a tree and realized that people didn’t need milk; they needed cows. So, he came back to the United States and started telling people, “They don’t need a cup, but a cow.”

One man who heard him speak told him, “You can have faith!” To which Dan replied, “I have faith in abundance, but what I really need is a bunch of cows.” The farmer then responded by saying, “Faith is the name of my cow.” In fact, among the first cows that Heifer ever shipped (which went to Puerto Rico) were Faith, Hope and Charity.

RP: Can you share a story that touched you in particular?

RW: I am blown away by what is possible. I met a family in Honduras who was so financially desperate that the husband thought he had no alternative but to emigrate illegally to the United States and leave his family behind. He really didn’t want to do this, but needed money to provide food for his family.

Heifer gave him some beehives, and he was able to make enough money from the sale of honey to create an entire farm. He bought his own livestock and is producing enough income so that he will never have to think about leaving his family again. His farm is on real steep terrain, but now it is terraced and he is using modern, ecologically-sound farming practices to improve and diversify his production. Today his whole family is so happy.

It makes my heart soar to see how people take what little we are able to provide and turn it into something meaningful for their families. We don’t just provide livestock. These are holistic development projects that address all the needs of families. All of our projects are environmentally sound. For example, we teach people how to build up their soil to make it more productive. We show them organic farming techniques, and attempt to reduce their use of chemical fertilizers. We also assist them with veterinary services, even if it’s what we call, “barefoot vets” or technicians. We develop training for those technicians so the community has the resources to be successful.

But most importantly, I want to make the point that it is the talent and resourcefulness of the recipients that make Heifer work so well. It is not outsiders coming in and “fixing” a community, but rather people in the community learning a lot of technical information, being given a “living loan” and turning that into a livelihood. They get all the credit.

RP: Why do you think so many people are trapped in poverty worldwide?

RW: Americans have the attitude that people should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They question why people in the developing world just don’t go out and do that. The reality is that if you are making $300 a year, you are not going to be able to buy a cow or a goat. You will have to spend all of your money just trying to stay alive.

There are 2 billion people in the world who are really struggling, and there is no way out for many of these people. Oftentimes, individuals have been forced to live on hillsides because the flat land has all been taken. However, Heifer has built a model that teaches people how to terrace a field, do irrigation, and have a farm that is ecologically sound, as well as providing livestock.

You can see a diagram of a small farm on We call this model, Integrated Farming, which includes the use of trees, bees for pollination and getting honey for sale, irrigation, livestock, and improved housing. As mentioned previously, the first female calf must be given as a gift, but the second one can provide a windfall that can net a family $500. This is a tremendous boost for a family whose income is less than $1000 a year. They can then afford to put a good roof on their house for the first time and not be wet when it rains, send their kids to school, and put aside money for healthcare.

RP: Has the AIDS crisis in Africa impacted your work?

RW: Heifer is addressing the crisis by helping to provide better nutrition to create a better quality of life for people with AIDS in Africa. If you don’t have good nutrition, the AIDS medicines won’t work. We have some very touching videos on our website that show the impact we are having on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. In fact, Paul Kagame, who is the President of Rwanda, has identified Heifer as the “number one economic development tool” for his country. We have also been identified as the “top economic development tool” in Nepal. We are starting projects in nine districts using Asian development funds through the government’s Agricultural Ministry. These are pilot programs that will eventually become large-scale projects that will affect the whole country.

RP: How big is the Heifer organization?

RW: We’ve grown from an $8.5 million operation ten years ago to nearly $100 million dollars this year. Our capacity to help people has grown dramatically, and we are now able to help nearly a million people every year.

RP: I understand you have a regional office in Seal Beach, California. Can you tell me about how people can get more involved with Heifer in that area?

RW: Pamela Stone manages the Southwest Region, which includes Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii. We have 600 very active volunteers and 35,000 donors in that region. Our roving volunteer trainings take place throughout Southern California year ‘round where volunteers are trained to go out to the schools and various religious organizations to talk about Heifer. They also provide ideas about events where we should have a presence and they help us staff our booths.

We encourage our volunteers to bring their ideas to us as to how we can generate more attention or income for our projects. We take our volunteers’ ideas very seriously and applaud any entrepreneurial efforts on our behalf. Unlike many organizations that derive their funds from big foundations or government grants, we have a very small percentage of funding coming from those resources. Our funding is largely supported by the hundreds of thousands of Americans who recognize the quality of this work and who incorporate it into their own daily lives during the holiday giving season.

RP: What events do you have coming up in Southern California?

RW: On November 5th we will be at a large event called, “Heifer in the Park”, where people can come explore our mini-global village. We will have three representational structures from Ecuador, Thailand and Uganda set up, and of course, there will be livestock. Like our catalog, this is an alternative-gift market where people can purchase animals to send all around the world. This event, which is sponsored by the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church, will take place in Beverly Hills on the corner of Rodeo Dr. and Santa Monica Blvd.

On November 18th, we will also be working with the Tierra Miguel Farm (a Certified Organic Farm) in Pauma Valley on a Thanksgiving Festival. For more information, call (760) 742-4213.

To get involved locally, contact Pamela Stone (562) 441-4849, or email: . To receive a gift catalog or make your holiday gift purchases, please visit 

Randy Peyser is the author of “The Mind-Body-Spirit Speakers Resource Guide.”  She also edits books, helps authors find publishers, and specializes in online publicity.

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