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There's a reason animal gifts are popular right now. The idea is fun; the animal is cute, easy to give as an alternative gift and is readily available from several organizations that all tout it as a means to help impoverished communities become self-sustaining. But it takes more than an animals, and only one organization works to that end–Heifer International.

For more than 67 years, Heifer International has recognized the cow, goat, sheep or rabbit is but one of the ingredients needed by a family or community to become self-sustaining. Along with that animal must come training: in animal care and management, in how to use its byproducts–muscle and manure, for example–for benefit.

And there must be values training, which is the very core of our successful model of sustainable development. These trainings, in sharing and caring, nutrition and income, improving the environment, full participation and gender equity that empowers both men and women together, create the social capital that contributes not only to the success of the participating family, but also to the community.

Only Heifer requires project participants to Pass on the Gift–giving the first-born female offspring of their animal, along with the training they have received–to another family. There are communities where pass-ons are in their fifth, 10th, even 13th generation. So the gift of a cow isn't really the gift of a single cow with Heifer. It's the gift of a herd.

There's no question that other organizations that provide animals to families in need do good work, but livestock inputs are but one item of the smorgasbord of work these agencies do. Giving livestock and training is all we do, and we do it exceptionally well, according to evaluators from Western Michigan University, who visited more than 139 Heifer projects in 20 countries and interviewed 5,000 Heifer program participants.

In their summary, evaluators stated, "In virtually every evaluation, the evaluators noted improvements in nutrition, agriculture, income, hope and opportunity, access to health care and medicine, livestock management. And mentioned in nearly every report was Heifer's signature, Passing on the Gift (POG) program."

Heifer's work lasts much longer than the mere delivery of the animal as well. Projects and work with families, by Heifer country staff (who are native to the country), last years, not days or even weeks. And even before an animal is delivered, the family spends up to a year training, building safe and sturdy animal sheds and learning to grow food for the animals that don't impinge on the family's own gardens and food.

Since 1944, we have worked with and helped ignite transformation for more than 71 million people in more than 125 countries around the world. That's a true track record for an organization that began its journey with a shipment of three heifers–Faith, Hope and Charity–to Puerto Rico.

Animals as alternative gifts are easy and cute, but only Heifer International considers the animal a catalyst to the heavy lifting that the families provide every day to pull themselves up out of poverty and into prosperity.

So give a Heifer animal. Because you know you're giving so much more when you do.

Oh! And use our new Facebook "Like" button to show your friends you like us.
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Brooke Edwards

Brooke Edwards is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and started working at Heifer International in 2009 as a writer. She and her husband raise two daughters in a house way too small for their four pets. They spend a lot of time sweeping.