Alternative Gift Fairs become a calling for Washington UCC volunteer
Written by Connie N. Larkman
November 4, 2013

Eliza Penick

A man with a pet rabbit at a Heifer International booth at Keystone United Church of Christ in Seattle, Wash., changed Eliza Penick's life. His presence at the church's Festival of Hope Alternative Gift Fair inspired a calling that Penick has been answering for more than 25 years, first as a young volunteer, and now as a regional community engagement coordinator for the nonprofit organization.

"All the kids gathered around the man with the pet rabbit talking about Heifer projects," Penick recalled. When the man was no longer able to come to the annual fair Eliza volunteered, at age eight, to run the church booth. "I've been staffing it ever since. Over the past 25 years, we have raised $23,612 for Heifer projects." 

"The involvement with the Heifer booth and the influence of my church on social justice issues, really helped shape the person I am today," said Penick. "Just as Heifer project participants around the world are empowered to envision and build a better future, I was empowered at a young age to act for change through Heifer's alternative giving program."

Keystone UCC is one of 3,100 UCC congregations around that country that supports the work of Heifer International, a global nonprofit leader of sustainable agricultural development for smallholder farmers. Family-oriented, community-based development models remain at the core of Heifer's programs, because as Penick and her supervisor, Pat Keay, have seen first-hand, they work.

"I have had the opportunity to travel to Honduras, Peru and Nepal to visit with communities that partner with Heifer," Penick said. "In each case, I bring my stories and experiences back home to share with my Keystone family."

"I've been a member of the United Church of Christ for over 30 years," said Keay, national community engagement director for Heifer International, who first learned about Heifer at her home church in Sterling, Mass. "I was inspired by the involvement of our entire congregation as they embraced Heifer as one of their mission projects. I've seen Heifer's work on the ground, most recently in Haiti, and I'm convinced our model empowers families to turn hunger and poverty into hope and prosperity."

Eliza Penick as a young girl.

Through Keystone's Festival of Hope Alternative Gift Fair in late November, church members are able to buy income-producing chickens, goats, cows and bees for resource-poor families working to improve their lives. Keay says Heifer is extremely grateful for the support from the UCC congregations which play a big role in helping Heifer reach a goal of assisting three million families every year.

"Heifer's approach of Passing on the Gift fits well with the values of the UCC," Penick said. "This principle of giving what you have been given builds a chain of dignity and inclusion, resulting in justice, not charity."

"Churches around the nation do alternative gift fairs heading into the holidays to provide an avenue to give gifts of meaning that help others," Penick said. "At Keystone, the Festival of Hope is held during the busy commercial holiday season as an example of an alternative economy – an economy built on love and justice, in which people give and share freely. This is the 35th year of the Festival of Hope. In my work with Heifer I've encountered a lot of churches that do fairs like this, but never one so long-running!"

"At Keystone UCC, the Festival of Hope is a celebration of the economics of faith, where the focus is on compassion and not competition, grace and not greed," said the Rev. Rich Gamble, Keystone UCC pastor. "Heifer International, in providing critical support to people in need, who then share their gifts with their neighbors, is a wonderful way to participate in that vision. Through Heifer, Eliza at a young age was able to have a meaningful role in the work of justice and compassion."

That work continues for Eliza today, both as a Keystone UCC volunteer and Heifer employee. Right now, as community engagement coordinator for Heifer International for the city of Seattle, she is gearing up for the gift fair season, working with about 10 UCC churches and coordinating Heifer's presence at a dozen events for schools and churches of various denominations.

"I am a living testament to the power of the Living Gift Market – to inspire every individual, young and old, to step outside the traditional model of giving and instead give that which is needed most," she says. "It changes lives."

"It is vision of what the church can be," said Gamble, "A community of people supporting one another as they discover and grow into their various vocations as embodiments of the love of God."
 
"We have a quote at Heifer, which also reminds me of my Keystone family and the love we seek to share with the world," Penick said. "When I take your hand, it's not for a handout. It is so we can walk together."

That is how peace and justice will be realized – together.

For information about Heifer's Living Gift Market and other programs or to order resources visit www.heifer.org.  or call 855-9HUNGER (855-948-6437) or 800-696-1918.

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Ms. Connie N. Larkman
Managing Editor & News Director
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-2196
larkmanc@ucc.org