Growing up with almost nothing sometimes teaches a person to give everything.
At least that’s how Bob and Muriel Leach see things. While lots of folks will be out hunting for bargains and gifts on Friday, Bob and Muriel won't be part of the mad dash on the opening day of the Christmas retail season.
They know what they're giving their family and friends for the holiday. They call it dignity.
For them, giving dignity means buying a goat – or at least a share of one – in honor of family and friends through an organization called Heifer International. Founded during the Spanish Civil War, the organization sends farm animals to help feed poor villages worldwide. Instead of giving handouts, Heifer works by helping villagers help themselves.
In return, each family gets a thank-you card. Even if the families don’t make the donation themselves, Bob and Muriel reason they can take a speck of credit for fighting world hunger. That satisfaction, they said, is priceless.
"If all you do is receive, what good are you?" Muriel said. "If you give something, you’re important. People look up to you."
Bob and Muriel grew up dirty and poor during the Great Depression and now live in a small brick house on West Boulevard surrounded by hundreds of knick-knacks they say just take up space. “It’s just more stuff to dust,” Muriel said, shrugging.
Most of them were gifts, from the messy piles of books to the puzzles, pictures, figurines and paintings stacked and wadded into every corner of their darkened living room. That’s fine, Muriel said. Giving material things makes others feel good. But before long, collecting objects feels empty, they said.
That’s why Bob and Muriel have started giving dignity for Christmas. It’s the last thing in the world that would take up space, and, for the life of them, they can’t think of a better gift.
Even though they grew up more than 500 miles apart, Bob and Muriel felt the same hunger pangs on nights when food was running out. That’s what drew them to Heifer International, they said. They can relate to the families that Heifer helps.
Bob grew up in a family of Nebraska goat farmers and never tasted cow’s milk until he was in kindergarten. His father, Corl, sat on the governing board of Heifer International during World War II. The charity, which donates cows and other animals to poor families around the world, used to be affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. Corl pushed for it to become ecumenical.
In 1948, when he was 19, Bob was sent by Heifer International to Japan onboard the SS Contest: A freighter decked out like a sea-faring goat farm. For three months, he milked goats, swept pens and sat on bales of hay just staring at a sky pocked with stars. If he closed his eyes and the sea was calm, he said, it felt almost like home.
The goats were among 1,000 sent by Heifer International to Yokohama that summer. It felt almost like a penance, said Bob, who would go on to become a pastor. When he arrived at Yokohama, the port was a tangled graveyard of steel beams and rusting ships that peeked from the water like headstones. Most of the goats Bob unloaded there would be sent inland to what was left of Tokyo, where the only structures still in tact after the war were chimneys from public bath houses.
Muriel grew up the daughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner who worked hard at everything he did. During the Depression, her brothers and sisters dispersed like dandelion seeds through Pennsylvania and Ohio, staying with family who could feed them or help them feed themselves. She stayed home outside of Pittsburgh, where she remembers being fed by missionaries with food baskets.
Even after she failed a required physical, Muriel still would become a missionary like the ones she knew back home. She couldn’t travel overseas – that was her dream – but she worked as a missionary in places like Ohio, Mississippi and Indiana. She met Bob in 1954 when she was a missionary administrator in Indianapolis and he was attending seminary. They courted for a year, talked about God and charity and married on a sunny Good Friday in 1955.
As well as helping other charities, the two have worked with Heifer International ever since. It just made sense, Muriel said. They just like giving people the means to help themselves. It made them feel good, and Muriel said they felt important – like it would matter if they died.
“When you think about it, it just makes sense,” Muriel said. “I mean – what else would you do?”
The thought of a commercial Christmas baffles Bob and Muriel. It’s easy to spend a life buying things, they both said, but it’s somehow empty, like if you ate and never got full. They’ve seen it more and more through the generations, as parents who have grown up poor have sworn their kids shouldn’t have to.
Through small donations, Bob wants to set some families straight. Christmas is about giving, he said, and giving makes he and Muriel feel whole. They want other people to feel whole, too, and maybe then they can start a trend. Even if it’s small, it’s still a step in the right direction.
“After so many years,” Bob said, “some people have everything else they need.”
Nine years ago, Bob and Muriel’s daughter Kirsten moved to Japan as a teacher. One day, as she drove through the country near Tokyo, she noticed a handful of white goats like the ones Bob sailed over with in 1948. So she called a Heifer International representative just to see if, by pure chance, they might be related to the herd that rode aboard the SS Contest.
“The Heifer representative said, ‘That’s probably right,’” Muriel said, laughing. “That’s the kind of thing Heifer is all about.”