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Last month, a group of state officers from the Arkansas Association of the National FFA Organization spent a weekend at the Heifer International Learning Center at Heifer Ranch and were generous to share their reflections with us. For your lunchtime reading this week, we'll pass them on to you. Read the other reflections in this series here. 

From Arkansas FFA Northwest District Vice President, John Coffey

Put simply, it was an experience unlike any other.  The thoughts are a little jumbled up- it was a lot to take in, in a rather short weekend.  I guess the best way to go about it will be to just write out the weekend, point by point.  If that is not what you want, discussion on the lessons learned is at the bottom.
We got there Friday afternoon, and were greeted by some of the nicest people I have ever met.  They made us feel right at home, and made sure we were all taken care of.  The rooms they gave us were very nice, neat, and comfortable.  Supper that night was very good, and afterwards we began our discussion on the issue of hunger and food insecurity.  National staff facilitated discussion on what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know, about hunger.  We didn’t answer many questions at all at that time- we let them stew to be talked about later on, after we got out of the village.  Free time follow supper, during which we spent some time with the national officers, talking, playing games, telling stories, and getting to know each other better.  
Saturday morning came a little earlier than would have been nice, but a good breakfast of biscuits and gravy in classic Couchdale style made it better.  A Heifer Project presenter gave us an overview of Heifer, and taught us the process involved with helping communities help themselves.  It was very interesting and informative.  A cold “hayride” and tour later, we made it to a warm building where they began facilitating team building activities, helping us come out of our shells, grow more comfortable with each other, and get to know each other even better.  They were pretty simple activities, but they made us open our eyes, broaden our perspectives, think outside the box, and work together.  Seemingly impossible activities were done- running 18 people underneath a swinging rope in one try, untangling two people connected by rope handcuffs, getting all 18 people from one, maybe 5 foot by 5 foot, platform, across to another smaller platform and finally to a 5 by 5 foot platform, using only 2 boards, neither of which was long enough to reach the next platform.  The facilitators were adequate, not quite used to our age group, but they definitely did a good enough job.  It was an excellent experience.
After a great lunch, we gathered all the belongings we were going to take into the village and went to the village barn.  They had us think about different aspects of our lives that affected our standard of living and our quality of life, and how those were similar in our own group, but different around the world.  We finally took a tour of the village, discovered who would have to have a “baby” (water balloon held by a sash), who would lead a group discussion, who would be affected by a life crisis, and what the families were and where we would live.  Every action once we were in our families had direct consequences.  If the baby died (water balloon popped), then our family had to mourn for 30 minutes, either with silence or by keening.  Each family came to a decision on the life crisis.  They could have a severe consequence for the family member it pertained to, or they could give up something undetermined in their supplies.  In Zambia, if we would have chosen to keep the supplies, Brittany would have had to go blind folded until bedtime.  Because we chose not to make her do that they took a couple potatoes, a couple turnips, and a couple carrots out of our food supplies.  They took the pots from the slums, and a few eggs and oil from Guatemala.  Supplies were doled out to each family, none of us having enough supplies to really make it on our own.  Guatemala had the water rights.  Without water, none of the food could really be cooked.  Zambia had the firewood, without which it would have been a very long and cold night.  The slums had to cook breakfast, and that was basically it.  Once we were placed in the village, we were left, and they said they would come back early in the morning and we needed to be ready with everything packed up and at the barn.  Then we left American society.
The village life was interesting.  Within 10 minutes we were bartering for food and supper, wood and water.  Everyone initially decided to come and meet up for supper, making a community meal where all would eat some and have a pretty balanced meal.  Zambia then stepped out of the treaty, wanting to fend for themselves.  We were threatened at our hut that since we had already pooled the resources we needed to barter with, we had nothing and could not step out.  Anarchy ensued.  Their representative was, held up, so the other village wouldn’t know what had happened, while one of our family went to talk to the others and get our pot, turnips, and some water back.  We were successful, and had soup for supper.  While it was adequate for one night, it would not have been a good enough meal for several nights in a row.  Cooking it took forever, and making supper really gave us an appreciation for how cooking in such conditions would be.  Breakfast the next morning consisted of oatmeal, with raisins and a little brown sugar.  By then we appreciated every bite.  
Sunday morning was cold.  We met at the barn and got started on chores.  The slums washed dishes, Guatemala made bricks, and Zambia went and picked turnips.  After chores we discussed how the worlds population is dispersed over the globe, and how individual income differs.  This was followed by a debrief of the weekend.
Some big things they really hit on that I noticed and liked- 

The activities they had us do we mostly whatever we made of them.  There were no reactions they were really looking for; they just wanted us to see how we would react.  Once we got to the village we were on our own.  They gave us general rules to follow, it was up to us to follow them or not.  They would give us directions and not explain them very well, wanting us to react however we perceived them.  While this doesn’t always work, it did in this case because the way the activities were presented.  

They wanted us to participate, not anticipate.  They wanted every experience to be fresh and not expected.  Information was purposefully withheld to prevent this.  We got a more genuine experience because we didn’t have preconceptions about what we were doing.  Everything, especially in the village, was more real, more meaningful, because of this.  

A lot of the activities they built up to.  For example, at one point we had to get all 18 of us through a rope they were spinning.  It started out that we just needed to get all of us through.  We went one at a time, and were trying to plan and strategize while others were going, and after we had all gone, realized they were counting how many spins it took us.  Going back through, they challenged us to go through in fewer spins.  We strategized before they started, and cut it down by more than 20 spins.  They challenged us to go through in even fewer, so we did.  Finally they challenged us to go through in one spin, which we didn’t think was possible at first, but by the end, we were willing to try, and we succeeded. 

The problem with saying what people learned from the trip is that everyone is different.  The activities are created so that everyone learns the way they are the most comfortable with, and so they learn different things, depending on their strengths.  

I learned a lot about Heifer Project.  They are a wonderful organization that works to make a big difference in the world, which includes the United States.  They operate on the basis of 12 ideals, which they came up with to define their involvement with farmers.  Those 12 stones help Heifer accomplish their goal of making communities self-sufficient.  They have had, and continue to have, a lot of success.  With our help, their success can only be increased.


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.