Not sheepish when it comes to helping the needy, Will Keagy, a 25-year Heifer Project farmer, lets two of his sheep roam in his backyard. "They are sisters," he adds. "They hate to be separated." / photo by Christie Reed

Not sheepish when it comes to helping the needy, Will Keagy, a 25-year Heifer Project farmer, lets two of his sheep roam in his backyard. “They are sisters,” he adds. “They hate to be separated.” / photo by Christie Reed

by Ramzi Rabadi
photography by Christie Reed

Live Oak Canyon, La Verne’s northeast border, features homes with rugged landscapes, dirt driveways and livestock in the yard. On the rugged Live Oak tree-dotted hillsides, one spies stellar, million dollar homes with tennis courts, satellite dishes and five car garages next to rustic California ranch style homes with horses and free-footed dogs roaming the territory.

This eclectic mixture takes place in the unincorporated county canyon lands of La Verne — a place where a family can live a life style that suits its passion without being invaded by the codes of the city.

Meet Will Keagy, Heifer Project farmer of 25 years, who raises chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats and sheep — all for a cause, and all within a few feet of his neighbor, attorney Herb Hafif, whose tennis courts and satellite dishes start where the animal cages end. The relationship between the two county residents is friendly, and — it can be assumed — they both enjoy and take advantage of the country style of life that the canyon affords.

“This is an area where you can mix properties. There is no code for values on who can live here,” says Keagy, a now retired electrical engineer who lives with his wife Mildred in the canyon house he built with his own hands from 1967-1970 while holding a 40-hour-a-week job. Presently, he volunteers and manages the privately run Webb-Oak Mutual Water Company, Inc., for Live Oak Canyon residents.

With the unrestricted, laid-back rules and freedom given to the residents of Live Oak Canyon, Keagy raises sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits and ducks on his “heifer farm.” His farm is one of many such projects linked to HPI, which is a non-profit organization that offers livestock to people of need in 110 countries. Heifer Project International originally started with the Church of the Brethren in 1944 but since then has become privately incorporated. HPI has helped more than one million poor families become self-reliant through the gift of food and income-producing animals coupled with animal husbandry training. This year, HPI will sponsor some 300 projects and supply 26 types of animals to farm families in 35 countries, including the United States.

Cows, goats, pigs, llamas, rabbits, chickens, bees and sheep are just some types of animals HPI offers. “The idea of Heifer Project is to pass on a gift, which helps people through the world in need,” says Keagy, a La Verne Church of the Brethren member, as he talks of his lead volunteer role in HPI.

HPI is visible at many state fairs, alternative church fairs and Sunday School classrooms, thanks to volunteers like Keagy. His personal devotion to raising animals, coupled with his carpentry skills, has produced a display trailer that is staffed by HPI volunteers at events such as the Los Angeles County Fair.

Presently, Keagy is raising animals to promote HPI as a part of his traveling road show. He has a full schedule of petting zoos set up for Sundays at many church fairs. “I take the animals in my old and rickety trailer in a cage. At the church, I put them on the lawn for people to look at,” says Keagy, who adds that he loves to see the happy faces of children as they interact with the farm animals. “Sometimes the children throw the chicks in the sky to fly, but the children do not realize that they are too young to fly,” Keagy laughs. The durable animals serve as a promotional display to gather support for Heifer Project. Children and adults “buy” the animals under their names or the names of friends as gifts to the needy.

Most of the cost of raising the animals is donated by the volunteers. The prices assigned to the animals reflect the initial purchase price of young animals: $500 for a Heifer cow; $250 for a water buffalo; $120 for a goat, sheep or pig; $150 for a llama; $60 for three rabbits; $20 for a flock of chicks; $30 for a hive of honeybees. In addition, fruit tree seedlings can be purchased for $60. Shares, that start at $10, can be purchased on all the animals/trees.

Keagy relays a story that has cemented his 15-year dedicated relationship to HPI: “A woman lived in a remote village in Uganda, Africa, where the children were dying due to a lack of food. After enduring many years of suffering, she heard about the organization Heifer Program International. She believed her first step was to try to write a letter asking for assistance. But in her cultural situation there was a problem, because as a woman in the village, she needed to get permission from the Chief. His answer was, ‘No — because no one will give you anything in this world,'” Keagy recounts.

Determined to improve the tribe’s lot in life, the woman made friends with the Chief’s wife. And between the two women, they were finally able to gain the Chief’s good graces to write that letter. “She had completed the first step for gaining assistance,” says Keagy. After she wrote the letter to HPI pleading her case for help, she waited patiently for a response. The time of waiting brought many questions to her mind: “What happens if they never got the letter?” “If they got the letter, how long will it take for a response?” And most often in her thoughts was the question, “Will they respond?”

Indeed the letter did reach HPI, and its management decided to send a representative to analyze the area. “The second step had been completed, but the more difficult steps were to come,” says Keagy. When she met the representative from HPI, she learned its plans to give her village just one cow. Her first reaction was one of disappointment. So she started to build a coalition group with other village women to gain more livestock.

The women, who did all the harvest work in this village, started to build animal shelters and raise crops. “HPI saw this and got involved and started to teach the ladies how to care for the cows. We need to make sure that they do not just eat the animal. The point of the original animal is to expand,” explains Keagy.

After two years of training, the women were ready for the task of taking on more livestock. Following, HPI decided to donate 15 cows from a nearby country to the deprived and suffering village.” Keagy notes that the animals were periodically artificially fertilized on location by trained Heifer Project staff.

As a condition of the gift, the village was asked to “pass on the gift” by sharing the first female offspring of the animals with other needy villages — 15 in all — ensuring project continuity and multiplying benefits of the original gift for generations. This process keeps the chain of life rolling on, which gives hope to others in poverty and despair, says Keagy. “Now they have fresh milk, and the second born baby calves are healthy,” says Keagy. “That is a typical scene in third world countries.”

The first act from this story begins on Keagy’s Live Oak Canyon Heifer Project farm found in the back of his home.

Keagy loves seeing children smile and gains satisfaction knowing he is providing food in the mouths of hungry people. He is inspired by knowing that HPI is helping hungry people feed themselves — an act that brings hope and builds stronger families, communities and, ultimately, a better world.

This opportunity, for Keagy, has been initiated through the freedom and privileges that residents have on La Verne’s northeast border. In this particular place on Keagy’s county ranch, it is a frontier of hope for people in need.