Why not give a camel or a chicken this holiday?

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, December 14, 2013

JANESVILLE--Doris Roehl started giving her family farm animals for Christmas about a decade ago.

She selects them from Heifer International's gift catalog, featuring everything from camels to chickens.

Her kids and grandkids do not actually get any livestock.

Instead, Doris buys the animals in their honor to donate to needy communities.

“My family seems to appreciate it,” Doris said. “My children all have wonderful jobs, so there is hardly anything that they want. When you read about people living on $1 a day, I feel this is a way to help.”

For almost 70 years, the nonprofit Heifer International has fought hunger by providing appropriate livestock and training to small farmers and communities around the world, including the United States.

Doris is especially pleased by Heifer's unique philosophy. Families who receive female animals agree “to pass on the gift.” They share one or more of the animal's offspring with other needy families and teach them how to care for the livestock. In some places, 22 generations of Heifer animals can be traced.

“It's an endless ring that keeps on going and going,” Doris said.

Two years ago, she visited Heifer's headquarters in Little Rock, Ark. There, she met Kelli Fagan Westbrook, formerly of Rock and Walworth counties.

Kelli is a huge Heifer fan, who has volunteered at the agency twice a week for five years.

“Even here in Little Rock, Heifer is a well-kept secret,” Kelli said. “We are a development organization, not a relief group. We work with subsistence farmers around the world who want our help.”

The organization's approach is more than just giving people a handout. The goal of every Heifer project is to help families achieve self-reliance, Kelli explained.

More than 20 million families have received animal donations since a farmer started the organization in 1944. The first shipment of 17 heifers left the United States for Puerto Rico, where malnourished kids had never tasted milk.

Before families receive animals, they are taught to be good farmers.

“We hire people in the country who train villagers,” Kelli said. “They teach them about sustainable agriculture. We work to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth.”

If you think one animal can't make a difference, listen to Beatrice's story.

The Ugandan girl was 9 when Heifer gave her struggling family a dairy goat.

The animal supplied the family with nutritious milk. Beatrice's mom sold the rest. Soon, she had enough money to send Beatrice to school. Later, the child earned a scholarship to attend high school. Beatrice eventually got funding to study in the United States, earned a master's degree and is now working in New York for Heifer International.

“I'm not against Christmas gifts by any means,” Kelli said. “But Heifer offers another way of giving.”

Kelli, the daughter of Jack and Jessie Fagan, was born and raised in Delavan. Eventually her family moved to Janesville.

In 1977, Kelli left Janesville to become a zookeeper in Little Rock. She cared for the animals 30 years before leaving the zoo in 2007.

Kelli volunteers at Heifer for good reason:

“It sounds like a cliché, but there are so many people who have so little,” she said. “This is a time of year when many people are thinking about others. We don't think anything of spending $30 on a gift. When you realize what a difference $30 can make to these families, you can benefit so many with so little effort.”

Kelli gave her niece a donation of chickens last year.

“She was absolutely thrilled,” Kelli said. “A donation to Heifer is so much bigger than we are.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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