A gift that lasts a lifetime: Vineyard hosts fundraiser for Heifer International

Sunday, May 22, 2011
Lucas Selvester stands with the family's cow, provided by Heifer International, in Getenga, Tanzania. (Jake Lyell ~ Heifer International)

Summer weekends in Southeast Missouri are a great time to visit local wineries and spend a relaxing afternoon with friends and family, but today, Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass, Ill., winery visitors will be supporting a greater purpose, a program called "Heifer in the Vines."

Alto Vineyards is hosting a benefit for Heifer International.

Following the principals of the "teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime" concept, Heifer International is a not-for-profit global organization that provides livestock and education on farming to poor communities, typically in foreign countries.

The benefit, which starts at noon, features live music from The Rural Kings / Etherton Switch bluegrass band, as well as a silent auction. The bands are donating their time for the event.

One of the organizers of the benefit is Shirley Krienert. A second-grade teacher at Gen. John A. Logan Elementary School in Murphysboro, Ill., Krienert has experienced what Heifer International does firsthand.

Last summer, she was selected to travel with a group of teachers from around the country to Honduras with Heifer International.

"It was a life-changing trip," Krienert said.

Krienert shared the charity's philosophy before this trip, giving animals as gifts at Christmas and other holidays, but the impact of this trip moved her to new action.

"During the trip, over and over again I was able to see firsthand and listen to stories that altered my perspective and outlook of the charity," she said. "Heifer International changes lives."

Essentially, the charity has a representative native to the area who works with it, and this person goes into a community and forms a group.

This group talks about immediate and long-term goals for the community, chooses leaders, creates a plan and decides who gets the starter animal.

Krienert said training and education is critical, and comes before the animal ever arrives. She also said the goal is not to help one family, but an entire community, over time.

"Recipients must promise to pass on the gift," she said. "When the animal has offspring, one is passed on to another member of the community. And so from one cow, for example, the lives of a whole community are changed."

In her visit, Krienert spoke with people who told her how Heifer International gave them a whole new outlook on the future for their families, building self-esteem and confidence in their skills.

"One gentlemen said that Heifer had given him hope, and he knew his children would now be able to have an education," she said. "The stories were incredibly moving, with a raw honesty that still touches my heart when I think about the experience."

When she returned, Krienert approached her principal about doing a school fundraiser. In April, her school raised $1,000 in one week for Heifer International.

Krienert also talked to her friends about the experience, and one of them, Julie Wittenborn-Sikorski offered to help with a fundraiser, which is what spawned the "Heifer in the Vines" event at Alto Vineyards.

"I embrace Heifer's goals of self-reliance and sustainable and ecologically sound farming practices," Wittenborn-Sikorski said.

She said giving aid to needy families who then pass on the gift to other needy families in the area is something that makes Heifer International special.

"I think that the 'pass on the gift' expectation is a phenomenal concept," she said. "As an educator, I certainly believe that the education of the recipients is key to them being able to become and to continue to be self-reliant."

Wittenborn-Sikorski said that she found inspiration in the story of Heifer International's founder, Dan West.

"He realized, 'These children don't need a cup. They need a cow,' and made it happen," she said. "He conceived the idea of sending young cows to needy families to give them a source of food instead of just short-term relief."

Krienert said the animals come from the donations and that not all recipients are male.

"Heifer is working to empower women, by having them be the owners of the animals in some instances," she said. "Heifer is all about self-sustaining, environmentally friendly farming."

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