Shake-up to close aid agency Restructuring means end of Heifer Project's regional office

February 24, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

About to be jobless, Edie Sodowsky is dismantling the regional office of Heifer Project International in New Windsor, but still promoting her employer as "the most effective development organization in the world."

Since 1944, the nonprofit ecumenical agency has donated livestock to the world's hungry, helping them to feed themselves with "sustainable agriculture at its best," said Sodowsky, associate director.

But HPI can no longer sustain the office at the Brethren Service Center on the town's Main Street. The organization, based in Little Rock, Ark., is moving its southern regional headquarters to Atlanta.

The consolidation eliminates five jobs -- Sodowsky's, three other full-time positions and a part-time one -- in New Windsor. It also makes Maryland part of the nine-state Atlantic South region and shifts Pennsylvania to the Northeast region.

The HPI staff in New Windsor has led many of the organization's efforts, recruiting donations and thousands of volunteers. For about 30 years, many of those volunteers were seagoing cowboys who traveled overseas with the livestock.

"While the partnership with the Brethren Center has been extremely supportive, we believe the changes we are implementing will allow HPI to continue to practice good stewardship of our gifts and income," Peg Barry, director of resource development and education, wrote in a Feb. 18 letter to several hundred volunteers.

The primary role of HPI's five regional offices is education and fund raising, said the Rev. Mark Lancaster, chairman of the board. The work has changed from days when the staff handled the livestock donations and organized the trips, by sea and later by air.

"An organization dedicated to ending hunger must spend its money as wisely as it can," said Lancaster. "It was a decision we made carefully, weighing as many considerations as possible."

Instead of shipping overseas, HPI now purchases the animals directly from sellers in the countries where the native farmers will raise them. Projects are in 37 countries in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. And it is not just cows that are involved, but various domestic animals and many of the more exotic ones, including water buffalo, alpacas, camels and even iguanas.

'Growth potential' noted

Initially, Lancaster does not expect the move to generate major savings, but "the growth potential in terms of volunteers will be much enhanced by a move south," he said.

Longtime local volunteers such as the cowboys -- 50 reunited in New Windsor three years ago for HPI's 50th anniversary -- and the farmers who tended the animals awaiting shipment will be most affected by the move, said Sodowsky.

"I am most concerned that communication continues with our many volunteers," she said. "I feel a personal need to shore up our volunteer groups before this office closes. For many of these folks, there is no contact with the recipients of their efforts."

Sodowsky, 50, became involved with HPI nearly two decades ago, donating baby goats from her Sabillasville farm to the project.

She joined the staff in 1995 and "has never had a job that is personally more fulfilling than this."

The job earned her a trip to the White House for the first lady's birthday in October. Sodowsky transported the present of honor, a nanny goat, that acted as a living, bleating symbol of the gift made to the project in Hilary Rodham Clinton's name.

Most of Sodowsky's small staff left shortly after the decision was announced early this month, although one person still volunteers. Typically during the winter, Sodowsky is scheduling exhibits and conferences, urging church and community groups to join the international effort.

'This project helps'

"In a world where 24 children, aged 5 and younger, die every minute from hunger, we can become overwhelmed with the enormity of it all," she said. "This project helps."

HPI's methods have proved so effective that other aid organizations are patterning programs on them. The U.S. Agency for International Development recently began teaching HPI methods in several underdeveloped countries.

"Rather than breeding dependence, this program fosters independence," Sodowsky said.

"This is truly passing on the gift. Every family who receives a donation passes on the offspring to another family in need. Our recipients become donors."

With less than six weeks until the office closes, she is doing less promoting and more packing. Wearing a shirt printed with the HPI logo, she is poring over historical records and pictures that tell the stories of the thousands HPI has helped and deciding what to ship to Atlanta.

Sodowsky has no job on the horizon and little time to look for one until she closes the office. She knew when John Dieterly, the longtime director of HPI in New Windsor, resigned last year, that changes would occur, but she did not expect to be restructured out of a job.

A widow with three grown children, she said the "generous severance" will give her little time to recoup before she plunges into another job.

Pub Date: 2/24/98

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