The gift continues: Puerto Rican Brethren host celebration of Heifer’s 75th anniversary

By Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, with contributions from Peggy Reiff Miller

A group picture at the Heifer International 75th anniversary celebration in Castañer, PR. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

The 75th anniversary of Heifer International was celebrated Oct. 5, in Castañer, P.R., hosted by Puerto Rico District of the Church of the Brethren, the Castañer congregation, and Castañer Hospital. (For photos of the celebration and other views of Puerto Rico go to

Puerto Rico was the destination of the very first shipment of animals made by the Church of the Brethren’s Heifer Project in 1944. The 17 heifers–female cows pregnant with their first calf–left Mobile, Ala., on June 7 and arrived in San Juan, P.R., on July 22, 1944. Of the 17 cows, 16 survived the voyage.

Heifer was the brainchild of Church of the Brethren denominational staff member Dan West, who came up with the idea of “passing on the gift” of farm animals to people affected by war and poverty. Structure for the project was put in place by the Brethren Service Committee during World War II, with animals raised or donated by Brethren farmers, congregations, school groups, and others. The success in Puerto Rico emboldened church leaders to begin a large effort to ship animals to war-torn Europe and Asia.

In subsequent decades, Heifer International became an independent nonprofit. Over 75 years of work around the world it has helped bring more than 34 million families out of poverty.

A historical marker is dedicated at the site of the first heifers received in Castañer, on the former grounds of the old hospital. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

A significant occasion

Oct. 5, 2019, is a “day in the history of Puerto Rico,” said Roberto Pagán, mayor of the Lares municipality in which Castañer Hospital and Castañer Church of the Brethren are located. “We felicitate and congratulate everyone who took their time and planted so that others could harvest…. It’s like a relay race, you pass the baton and continue on.”

“Puerto Rico will always loom large in Heifer Project’s history and legacy,” said Peggy Reiff Miller, who attended the celebration as a leading Heifer historian. She said the anniversary connects Heifer to the work of Civilian Public Service (CPS) on the island and to the development of Castañer Hospital and the founding of the first Church of the Brethren congregation in Puerto Rico.

The logo of Castañer Hospital includes the image of the Brethren Service cup.

CPS’s “Martin G. Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit” in Puerto Rico started a subunit in Castañer as a place where conscientious objectors could do alternative service during and after World War II. Reiff Miller said the subunit was placed in Castañer because of the dire need for medical services in that mountainous area.

The first Heifer animals arrived in Castañer in 1945, a herd of six heifers and one bull. The herd was looked after by members of the CPS unit and provided fresh milk both for the unit and for the hospital.

Over the next 15 years Heifer Project made 24 shipments of animals to Puerto Rico including cattle, goats, poultry, pigs, and rabbits, Reiff Miller said.

Castañer Hospital executive director Domingo Monroig leads a tour of the hospital during the 75th anniversary celebration for Heifer International. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

A distinguished gathering

Along with Mayor Pagán, the anniversary celebration gathered leaders from Heifer International, Castañer Hospital, and the Church of the Brethren in Puerto Rico and the mainland.

Heifer International vice president Jesús Pizarro attended with members of his family. He currently works out of Little Rock, Ark., but is originally from Puerto Rico. Heifer also sent a photographer and a videographer.

Castañer Hospital was represented by executive director Domingo Monroig, others on the administrative staff, and board members including chair Eduardo Ortiz.

Puerto Rico District was represented by, among many others, executive minister José Calleja Otero who also pastors the Vega Baja congregation; Castañer pastor Jaime Díaz; disaster coordinator José Acevedo; members of the district board; and the celebration planning committee. A majority of pastors from the district’s seven congregations were present.

Representing the Church of the Brethren staff were general secretary David Steele, Global Mission and Service executive director Jay Wittmeyer and associate executive Roy Winter, and News Services director Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Wittmeyer sits on the board of Heifer International. Global Mission and Service helped provide funding for the celebration. Also attending were Brethren Disaster Ministries staff and volunteers who are being hosted in Castañer to do rebuilding work following Hurricane Maria.

The planning committee included Acevedo, who served as committee chair; Monroig; Otero; Díaz; and Arecibo Church of the Brethren pastor Lorens Crespo.

Global Mission and Service executive Jay Wittmeyer with translation by Puerto Rico District executive Jose Calleja Otero, addressing the ceremony celebrating the 75th anniversary of Heifer International. This official public ceremony took place on the plaza in Castañer, P.R. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

A full day of celebration

Events began in mid-morning as participants gathered at Castañer Church of the Brethren and then toured the adjacent Castañer Hospital. Luncheons were held at the hospital and at the church. A historical marker was dedicated at the site where heifers were first received in Castañer, at the old location of the hospital. An afternoon ceremony in the town plaza was open to the whole community.

Speeches were given and official resolutions were read, including a resolution by the Puerto Rican Senate recognizing Heifer International and its history on the island, a proclamation by the Mayor of Lares, and felicitations to Heifer International from Puerto Rico District read by pastor Lillian Reyes.

Wittmeyer spoke on behalf of the Church of the Brethren denomination, noting Puerto Rico’s part in “giving birth to one of the most respected and efficient organizations in the world today, Heifer International…. Let us continue to work hard together until no child is sick or hungry or suffering, and we say this to the glory of God and our neighbor’s good.”

Steele presented a special gift to Castañer Hospital of $100,000 from the estate of the late Chester and Virginia Poister of Hemet, Calif. The Poisters, who were Church of the Brethren members, had dedicated this sum out of the proceeds of the sale of their citrus ranch in the Pomona Valley to help the hospital’s mission to serve the community. Virginia Poister’s sister, Maxine Alice Dull, was trustee for their estate until her death. The Church of the Brethren denomination was entrusted with transferring the gift to the hospital. 

“Community is so important in the church,” said Steele, noting that the hospital “is a place where community comes together. This is an example of a community loving one another and taking care of each other.”

Monroig responded for the hospital, saying, “We hope that in the future Castañer Hospital will be more effective for the community. Thank you for being with us in this important day.”

The gift of a young calf, brought by a local family, was a highlight. Steele and Pizarro jointly handed the calf to recipient Erick Yadiel Rivera in recognition that Heifer’s motto, “passing on the gift,” continues to benefit Castañer. Rivera is studying agriculture at Castañer High School and is a candidate for graduation this year. A release from the planning committee described him as a “humble youth with Christian principles.” His family is among those who have received aid from Brethren Disaster Ministries to repair their home following Hurricane Maria.

Music by the group Brazos de Oro rounded out the afternoon, including an original song written for the occasion. Cake was served as people stayed in the plaza to enjoy music and conversation.

Castañer Church of the Brethren was the first congregation in Puerto Rico District. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

The gift continues

“I am very proud as a Puerto Rican that the first project was here in Puerto Rico,” said Pizarro. Heifer International includes and serves people from many different religions, “but we share with the Church of the Brethren the sense of empathy…the sense of social justice,” he said. “That is the identity we share with the Church of the Brethren and the Castañer church.”

“Today is a very special day for me,” said Elizabeth Cruz, one of those who spoke at the dedication of the historical marker. She is a nurse and serves as secretary of the hospital board. As a child she remembers being sent by her grandmother to the hospital with empty bottles to be filled with fresh milk for herself and her family. Even as a young girl she saw what the hospital was doing for people and decided to become a nurse.

Cruz and others emphasized the importance of Heifer for Castañer and Puerto Rico, and the need for younger generations to be taught this history. She hopes the anniversary celebration will encourage participants “to have at the bottom of your heart this special recognition, that our kids and grandkids remember.”

— Peggy Reiff Miller contributed to this report. Read her blogpost about the celebration at
 . For photos of the celebration and other views of Puerto Rico go

A gift of a young bull calf to an agriculture student at Castañer High School was a highlight of the 75th anniversary celebration of Heifer International. Church of the Brethren general secretary David Steele, at center, and Heifer International vice president Jesús Pizarro, third from left, officially presented the calf to Erick Yadiel Rivera, second from right. Members of the family bringing the calf are shown at left. Also part of the “passing on the gift” ceremony was Castañer Hospital executive director Domingo Monroig, third from right. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
[gt-link lang="en" label="English" widget_look="flags_name"]