Alabama kids share muscle power, heifers in S.D.
June 16, 2014
The sincere words, "Lord, thank you for these people we now call our friends and neighbors, no matter how many miles separate us," echoed through the Union Center Community Center on the evening of June 2. Area ranchers, together with 53 people from Alabama, had converged for a potluck meal following a day of working together on local operations impacted by last October's blizzard.
The Lauderdale County Junior Cattlemen's Association of northern Alabama began planning their 1,600 mile trip west last fall, when the group's instructor Brian Smith read a South Dakota rancher's firsthand account of the blizzard online.
"As I sat at my desk reading, I began to think we should do something – that we should get our Junior Cattlemen kids involved in raising money, then take them to South Dakota to put it directly into the hands of those ranchers and meet them face to face. How much greater would that be for everyone involved than just sending a check in mail?" said Smith.
While nervous at first, Smith read on about how much people had lost and the fact that with those losses went the stories, genetics and pieces of heritage within herds. He became increasingly excited about taking heifers to South Dakota as opposed to a monetary donation.
"Taking Alabama heifers to South Dakota became the calling card of our effort very quickly. We had a Junior Cattlemen's meeting that included a conference call with a South Dakota producer, and while we had no idea how that would go, everybody just jumped on the idea after that. It was amazing the degree of support we had right from the start,"said Smith.
Local support in Alabama quickly gained steam, with area producers offering heifer donations starting immediately after they were presented with the idea at the annual cattlemen's banquet, and the state cattlemen's association endorsing the idea upon it being presented to them.
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"We started raising money through hosting four major steak suppers where we fed over 800 people total, and a lot of smaller suppers we worked at," said Junior Cattlemen member Isaac Grigsby of fundraisers for additional heifers to bring west.
When their efforts were complete, the young people of Lauderdale County had obtained 21 heifers to donate to South Dakota producers. After visiting with Union Center community members, it was agreed that the heifers should be spread out as much as possible, and 21 recipient names were drawn from those impacted by the storm.
"We know that's not a tremendous difference financially, but we think it will provide an emotional difference. To know someone is reaching out and thinking of you is exciting, and now 21 families have a new heifer whose story is that she came from that group of kids in Alabama," said Smith.
Community entities stepped up to the plate after witnessing the Junior Cattlemen's efforts, providing financial support to a degree that all 30 kids who made the trip were responsible for covering only $50 of their costs. Twenty adults also chose to make the journey to not only aid in delivering the heifers, but to provide a physical labor force to area ranchers for a couple days.
"The second part of this was we wanted to roll up our sleeves and help people while we were here delivering the heifers," said Smith.
However, what began as a plan to simply help people quickly turned into the formation of new friends as the community of Union Center embraced the cattlemen's group and their efforts.
"I stressed before we came up that we didn't want to be a burden and were coming to help them, but these people have opened their homes to us and we are all staying with the families we're helping. They've fed us, smiled and shaken our hands and just rolled out the red carpet in every direction. We talk about southern hospitability, but you can't beat this right here," said Smith.
Junior Cattlemen member Trevor Hines said the receiving line of people waiting for the group when they arrived on Monday morning was almost overwhelming.
"When we pulled up to that corral on Monday, there were kids jumping and waving and people everywhere waiting to meet us. Everyone was so excited we were there. The families have all been very grateful, and have told us that everything we've done is greatly appreciated. We just hope to set an example of what young people from Alabama can do to be helpful in situations like this," he said.
A tour of one of the areas where cattle died and were buried following the storm provided a moment that helped solidify the feelings of despair and devastaion that area families had endured.
After the tour and fellowship, the Junior Cattlemen's group split into various groups to help ranchers for the afternoon.
"My group helped put in some new fence for a catch pen, then we fixed a cover on a well," said Trevor.
Other groups helped put out bulls, brand late calves, fence and plant trees – something all the Alabamans thought would make a positive, lasting impression on the prairies of South Dakota.
By Monday evening's potluck, there were surnburns galore, stories of getting stuck, questions of why South Dakotan's don't drink sweet tea and the foundation of many lifelong friendships.
"I thought coming on this trip would be a good way to motivate people and show them anyone can make a difference. These people have lost part of their heritage, where they've come from and what they've grown up to know. To give back a little bit of our own heritage in a way that adds to theirs is a true accomplishment," said Grigsby.
For Smith, seeing the positive impact the effort has had on all those it's touched has been the most rewarding aspect.
"I can't say enough good things about this group of kids. This will change their outlook on a lot of things in life. It has taught them about citizenship, faith and purpose. So many kids are only concerned about themselves, and it has done me so much good to see this group not sitting at home playing video games, but out doing something like this for someone else. I'm so impressed and so proud to call them mine," said Smith.
The group planned to continue working with area ranchers until their departure Wednesday at noon, in addition to personally dropping off all 21 heifers at their new homes with the stories of where they came from and the people who raised them.
"It's important for people in agriculture to stick by each other. It's a way of life that is slipping away in parts of the U.S., and we are constantly under attack by outside forces. If we don't stand by each other and help each other we're going to lose what has taken generations of our ancestors to build. It's very important to see kids like these get involved in agriculture, and the results are truly incredible," Smith said.