Students gather around a cooking fire in the Urban Slums during the alternative break trip to Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arakansas. (Megan Binkley / Clarion)
Students gather around a cooking fire in the Urban Slums during the alternative break trip to Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arakansas.

Megan Binkley / Clarion

Global Village, global mindset

Students experience variety of lifestyles during spring break trip to Heifer Ranch

March 20, 2018

“Numbers 10, 115, 49, 72, 33, 42, 98, 7. Please stand up and come to the center of the circle.”
Eight women rose slowly from the metal folding chairs. The rest of the group —20 other women, and one man — sat in silence in a large circle in a barn. A brisk Arkansas breeze sailed through from the open door, and several of the girls began to shiver. Outside, the midday sun gleamed on the budding trees and tangled grass.

“Congratulations. You just became parents.”

There was a second of shocked silence. Suddenly, everyone burst into laughter at once- and none as hard as the women standing in the circle. One of the activity leaders, Lisa, rose and pulled a box from under her chair. In it were nine cloth slings. Each one held a water balloon.

“These are your babies.” Her strong German accent gave her words a lilt. She handed a sling to each woman. “Lucky you,” she grinned at the final woman, a student trip leader from the University of North Texas. “You have twins.”

The women returned to their seats, cradling the slings. The activity leader from Boston, a waifish young woman named Abby, raised her hand for silence.

“During your night in the village, these babies are your responsibility. They must have human contact at all times. They need milk, or they will starve. Don’t drop or pop your baby.” She held up a wooden block with large capital letters on the side — M-I-L-K. “This represents your baby’s milk. Not every group will receive a milk block.”

The circle fell quiet. The final activity leader, a young Frenchman named Alex, pulled a piece of paper from his pocket.

“57, 40, 82, 14, 74, 18, 99, 121. Please rise.” Eight more women stood.

“You are injured. You will each receive a card with the details of your injury before you leave. You and your family have two choices. One, you may live with your injury, and all of its difficulties, for the entire night. Two, your family can decide to trade some of their resources in exchange for the cure. You will not know what resources you are forfeiting before you make your decision.” He flashed a wicked smile. “Please sit down.”

The women sat in silence. In the group of 29, no one spoke, or even moved — all eyes were fixed on the three activity leaders. Lisa took the sheet from Alex.

“And finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for.” She looked down at the paper. “Let’s assign housing.”

The Heifer Ranch

In some ways, everything in the trip had lead up to this point.

Since arriving at Heifer Ranch for the 2018 Alternative Spring Break trip, students from both schools involved — Madison College and the University of North Texas — had heard snippets about the Global Village. “It’s got houses from around the world,” one ranch volunteer said. “You’ll see. Glad I’m not doing that again.”

Embedded in the center of the 1,200-acre ranch, the Global Village is isolated from the rest of the property, sequestered by a forest dense with thorn bushes and treacherous bogs. Preoccupied with long hours of service work and manual labor, none of the students had a chance to explore the Village on their own.

During lunch on the third day, Alex approached the Madison College table.

“After lunch, you will pack for the Global Village,” he ordered. “Bring warm clothes — and no food. I mean it. Absolutely no food. Come to the barn at 1:30.”

For students who came to Arkansas expecting days full of the meditative predictability of farm work, the mystery of the Global Village was intriguing. Located in Perryville, Arkansas, Heifer Ranch is an offshoot of the larger organization Heifer International, an entity that fights worldwide hunger and poverty through gifts of farm animals and training in sustainable agriculture. The Madison College Alternative Spring Break Trip to the ranch attracted a motley assortment of vet tech, marketing, accounting, health administration, and journalism students—none of whom had the faintest idea what was in store for them in the Village. The faculty lead, Dr. CC Sheldon, was enthusiastic but enigmatic when pressed for details.

“Every single time, I’m in the dirt slums,” she jokingly griped on the drive down. She shook her head in exasperation, bangs swinging like fringe as she peered out the windshield. “They say the assignments are random, but they aren’t. Every single year I’ve lead this trip, I’ve ended up in the dirt slums.”

Global Village Tour

At 1:30 on the third day, students stood in the barn gathered around the three activity leads.
“We will now split you into two groups and begin our tour of the Global Village,” said Lisa. “Those with sleeping bags, follow me. Those without, follow Alex.” Lisa led the way to a flight of wooden steps winding down into the forest. Her group filed after her.

In the next hour, the Global Village was finally explained. Scattered across several hundred acres were seven camps, built in the traditional style of a specific country or theme. On the edge of the village, representing the pinnacle of luxury, was the Guatemala house. A brightly painted cinderblock hut with bunk beds, a wood burning stove, doors, and windowpanes, the Guatemala house also came with chicken coops, rabbit huts, and a small garden.

“My family and I are lucky to be able to get what we need to survive from our garden and our animals,” Abby read from the card — a story from one of Heifer’s real-life Guatemalan partners.
Further into the village was a bamboo forest, flooded with green light. Intricate root systems peaked out of the steep banks lining the path.

“Does anyone know how many plants are in this bamboo forest?” Abby asked the group.

“Hundreds!”

“A thousand!”

“Five thousand!”

“Trick question — it’s actually all one plant.” Down the path, the forest thinned and gave way to plains. Several hundred feet away two huts were visible. Both were on stilts, seven feet off the ground, with thatch roofs and bamboo walls. A garden with a bamboo fence lay between them. Abby continued. “As you can see, it’s an incredible building material. Welcome to our Thailand houses.”

After several minutes exploring the stilt houses, Lisa began to pull the students away. She led everyone to the right, up another steep hill. After several hundred feet the hill flattened to reveal a lake, rimmed with brush. A circular, yellow brick hut was visible through the reeds on the far edge.

“This is our Zambia house. It’s designed for air flow in hot climates, and it has a fire pit and a chicken coop near it.”

To the left of the Zambia house, the hill sloped sharply downward. At the bottom lay the Refugee camp: two structures on the floor of a flood plain, mired in puddles and crawling with fire ants. One structure was a piece of canvas stretched over poles; the other, sheets of aluminum, balanced several feet above the ground on sticks.

“Over 65 million people currently live in refugee camps,” Abby said, gazing down at the shacks. “We won’t go look inside during this tour, before the housing lottery. This is intended to help recreate the feeling of uncertainty that real refugees feel when arriving at temporary shelters in foreign locations.”

Beyond Zambia and Refugee, the forest path began again. It wound across a stream and through the woods until it came to a clearing with three shacks perched on the slope. The shacks were flimsy: pieces of rusted tin and cardboard, nailed to wooden supports. Two of the buildings had no floors, only mud littered with sharp rocks.

“These are the urban slums—the ones with floors are the wood slums, and the ones without are the dirt slums.” Lisa nodded toward a fire pit in the center of the clearing. “Tomorrow morning, the slums will be responsible for cooking breakfast.”

Behind the slums, the path rose at a 45-degree angle. Several minutes further in, the group reached a tiny cabin, balanced at the very top of the peaks. It had a door, window panes, two mattresses, and a TV, yet no electricity ran to the house.

“This is our Appalachia house. The TV is representative of hidden poverty. Often times, symbols of apparent wealth can be used to cover up true need and poverty, for the sake of peoples’ pride.” Lisa motioned the group forward. “Our last house is this way.”

The tour finished in a canvas yurt, 15 feet wide and 10 feet high. Light filtered green and dappled through the collapsible wooden frame. After relaying brief facts about yak lifespans and wool production, Abby clapped her hands together.

“That wraps up our Global Village tour,” she said.

Housing Assignments

Several hours later, the lottery continued.

“Seven, 91, 172.” Lisa’s voice was the only sound in the barn. “Please come to the center of the circle.” The three women tiptoed forward.

“You will spend the night in…Guatemala!” Gasps came from the trio in the circle, and one of the women broke into cheers. Another pretended to wipe tears of joy from her face, beaming from ear to ear. “I needed that, I really needed that,” she crowed. Twin water balloons dangled from slings over her shoulders. Behind them, groans were audible from the seated students.

“47, 15, 98, 72, 121, please stand.” Abby’s voice cut through the celebration. Four new women rose, anticipation fighting with anxiety on their faces.

“Your family will be in Thailand.” Several of the girls broke into smiles, and one started to laugh. “Alright, I can live with that,” she said. “Better than it could be.”

“10, 99, 115, 27, your family will be in Appalachia.” More sighs of relief came from the women in the center of the circle. “We get mattresses!” Squealed one of the UNT students, a boisterous blond with hair down to her waist.

“36, 42, 57, 14, 25, 82, and 49, come forward.” Several Madison College participants, including Dr. Sheldon, stood up. “Your family will be in the dirt slums.” CC threw up her arms and rolled her eyes while everyone around her burst into laughter. “What did I tell you?” She cried over the hilarity. “Every year!”

“18, 74, 39, 63, 23, 64—you will be in the wood slums.” Groans and laughter rose together from the students still seated. “Ha, we get a floor!” Yelled one woman, and the girls on either side of her cheered. The four remaining participants sat as if frozen. “Oh god, I’m going to be in Refugee,” one of the whispered.

“21, 40, 33, and 68—Zambia!” Shock was quickly followed by relief on the faces of the last participants. “Hey, concrete is better than puddles and fire ants!” One of them finally said. On the edge of the circle, Alex raised his hand for quiet.

“Tibet and Refugee will remain uninhabited for the night, due to flooding.” He smiled as sighs of relief swept the circle. “Now that you have been assigned to houses, we will distribute injuries and resources accordingly.”

Coming Together in the Global Village

From here, the night could have gone horribly.

All of the groups received basic cooking utensils, but the similarities ended there. Guatemala and Zambia both received modest amounts of food: Guatemala had a few eggs, dough for tortillas, a milk block, and control of all the clean cooking water in the village. Zambia, after sacrificing half of their food to heal a family member blinded in the lottery, was left with six potatoes and six carrots—enough for four people to nibble on. Yet Appalachia, despite their wood rights, was given only salt, pepper, and a few teaspoons of cooking oil. Thailand received a cup of rice, the wood slums got two. The dirt slums got nothing at all, and were forced early on to trade away their one knife for a milk block. The initial bartering between groups was tense. One girl, faced with the fact that she probably wouldn’t eat for the next 24 hours, began to cry.

Yet within an hour of reaching our huts, runners between the camps had established a theme. Each group had independently decided to contribute all of their resources to create one large, communal meal—no one would be full, yet everyone would eat. This foundation of trust and generosity created a domino effect; as the night progressed, and the temperature hovered around freezing, resources were shared without reserve between the camps. 29 people waited patiently in line for a quarter cup of rice and soggy vegetables. When one woman tripped over a rock in the pitch black and spilled her dinner, everyone contributed some of their own to replace the lost food. The night ended with scary stories around a campfire, with laughter, and comradery.

Huddled around the warmth of the flames, sharing a blanket with strangers and laughing with friends, the point of the entire ordeal seemed luminously clear. We were all hungry, cold, and exhausted. Most of us would be sleeping in the dirt, on near-empty stomachs; the lucky ones would get a concrete or wood floor. Yet we had risen above the situation in which we found ourselves. We had faced unexpected obstacles that threatened the luxuries we took for granted—food, shelter, warmth—and we had retained our dignity and our humanity through empathy, communality, and generosity. While this isn’t necessarily hard to do in a small group for a limited period of time, with a definite return to comfort in sight, the situation set a precedent. For the rest of their lives, these students will know that they are capable of reacting to adversity with kindness, poise, and inclusivity. Perhaps, in future times of difficulty, they’ll choose to continue this pattern, drawing on the strength they discovered in the woods of the Global Village.

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