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Staff Writer

TOWNSEND — The calendar may say November, but with Thanksgiving fast approaching, the Townsend Congregational Church and United Methodist Church both held their holiday craft fairs recently.

Inside the buildings were a vast array of wreaths, ornaments, crafts and gifts decorated in all manner of holiday cheer. Outside, however, on the grounds of the Congregational Church, a different type of gift was on display: The Heifer International program.

The program “sells” donations to help combat world hunger. Each donation goes toward the feeding and care of livestock at farms around the world. It is the very definition of a gift that keeps on giving.

A pair of fenced-in pens containing sheep, goats and even a trio of alpacas stood to the left of Nancy Shepherd’s tarp-covered information table. To the right was a pair of rabbits in separate cages next to another, smaller pen with three chickens clucking away and scratching for feed on the ground.

Shepherd has been a contributor to the Heifer International program for over 62 years, but has only been promoting it in this manner for a little more than a decade. She first learned of it in eighth grade, while living in nearby Leominster.

The program began when Midwestern farmer Dan West decided in the 1940s that the answer to the hunger problem wasn’t locating food, it was having a renewable source of food. In 1944, West arranged for a shipment of 17 heifers — young cows that have not given birth — to be sent to Puerto Rico from Pennsylvania, to aid in the relief effort from the Spanish Civil War.

It was the first of many such donations through his Heifers for Relief program, dedicated to eliminating hunger by providing livestock and knowledge of how to maintain the stock and maximize its value. The program has expanded far beyond the borders of the United States to include more than 500 projects worldwide.

“It’s such a wonderful program,” Shepherd said. “The world needs food more than wars.”

The program’s primary goal is to promote self-esteem and dignity amongst its beneficiaries. This was one of West’s main reasons for beginning the program, after he was forced to decide who received food and who did not as a relief worker during the war.

Every family that receives a heifer is pledged, through the program, to give the first female offspring of that cow to another family, to carry on the giving process.

She is amazed at how far the program has come since its inception, how far it has spread. Even more amazing is how it has kept up with inflation.

“You used to get a nickel or a dime,” she recalled with a chuckle. “Now, $40 gets half of a sheep.”

For more information about Heifer International, visit www.heifer.org. For more information on local projects, contact the program’s center in the Northeast, Overlook Farm in Rutland, Mass., at (508) 886-2221.