‘I’ve got to get home to my cows’

With courage and grace, Reese comes home after 22 months

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from FARMSHINE March 25, 2016
Reese03Author’s Note: It has been almost a month since Reese’s homecoming and she is getting back to the precious rhythms of life on the farm: Greeting her little sister off the bus on sunny afternoons, feeding her prize cow’s new calf, riding the gator with her grandfather, having tea parties with sister and cousins on Sunday afternoons, getting together with school friends, still attending school virtually via “Double,” her robot, even going to the dentist! Her journey continues to inspire. I am grateful for the opportunity to interview Reese and her mother and grandmother on the quiet first Monday after her arrival home Friday, March 18, 2016. Get ready to be inspired by this young lady, and by her family and the local farming community and worldwide dairy community who continue to think of her. Thank you to Jean Kummer, Laura Jackson and Jennifer DiDio for providing some of the photos here.

 

MERCERSBURG, Pa. — Nina Burdette tells the story of granddaughter Reese teaching her cow Pantene to lead when she was a calf five years ago. Reese was four at the time, and Nina told her “Don’t let go.”

“That calf pulled her around, and at one point she was flat on her back holding on, until that calf wrapped itself around a post,” Nina recalls she had rope burns on her hands.

Reese never let go.

So it was two years later, on May 26, 2014, when Reese arrived at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, where she would spend the next 662 days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) recovering from burns over 35 percent of her body and smoke damage to her heart and lungs after a fire at the home of her grandmother Patricia Stiles, who also recovered from significant trauma carrying her from the burning room.

Reese never let go.

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Today, she is back home at Windy-Knoll View farm in rural Franklin County, Pa., with her sister Brinkley and their parents Justin and Claire Burdette, and of course her cow Pantene and her three heifers Pretzel, Panzee and Pardi Gras.

Over and over, Reese told her doctors: “I’ve got to get home to my cows.”

Words spoken from the heart of a true dairy farmer. “Oh she has her mind set on that, just like her mom and dad,” says Nina. “We call her the junior manager.”

Driving through Mercersburg to the Burdette home on Monday, purple still proclaimed Reese’s homecoming parade from the preceding Friday. Purple and white cows stood in yards and driveways, purple balloons, welcoming TeamReese banners, home-made signs of love and support, purple bows tied to trees, poles and fence posts all along the route of young Reese Burdette’s drive home from Baltimore to Mercersburg — the 200-mile trek her family has traversed between the home farm and their second home at Johns Hopkins for nearly two years.

Reese had set a goal to be home for her 9th birthday, which she celebrated with family and friends — at home — on Sunday, March 20.

“Friday was surreal,” said Mom, Claire, during Monday’s Farmshine interview as Reese sat in the next room attending school via her robot, screen and headphones. Brinkley, 5, had also gone off to school that morning, and Reese was eager to be on the porch in a couple hours to see her little sister get off the bus — something she had envisioned for months.

A return to the ordinary rhythms of life on the farm is just what this child has longed for as she recovered from that fateful day.

Friday had dawned brisk and sunny as Claire and Justin and Brinkley waited with Reese for morning rounds. “When the doctor said ‘you’re free to go,’ it felt so good to hear those words we had waited and prayed to hear for so long,” Claire recalls.

A sendoff party was attended by hundreds the night before at Johns Hopkins where Reese has become quite the celebrity in what everyone referred to as “the sunshine room” where there was no room for worry. She shared her games, was known for her aim in shooting foam darts at a deer on the doorway, and had a machine for making snowballs and popcorn for sale with lines out the door to her room some days. Her PICU room had been transformed into a rehab that looked as much like home as possible for the past year. Toward the end of her stay, Reese surprised her family with a video of her journey.

“She’s not afraid to talk about the fire,” said Claire, noting that the hospital has learned from Reese as they tried processes for the first time with her burns. Jim tells of the time she consoled a grandmother whose granddaughter was getting a tracheotomy, explaining to her there is nothing to fear. She had become quite the advocate for her own care, face-timing Dr. Kristen Nelson about medicines and earning the name “Dr. Reese” among the residents in training (RTs).

In fact, Dr. Kristen, as she is known, is quick to point out that, “Reese has surprised me in so many ways about perseverance and strength and hope and grace and bravery, and I am forever a part of her life.”

On Friday morning, an entourage of 25 doctors, nurses, RTs, and custodians, escorted her to the white SUV sporting the large purple bow.

And so, they began their journey back home to a new normal.

Claire said the sight was “amazing. There are no words to describe riding up and seeing people after people after people.”

A sea of purple lined the streets. “There was so much joy… and tears. People were waving and hugging each other,” she said.

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The local fire company brought every piece of equipment for the homecoming escort. They drove through the high school, where the band played, and then through the middle school and through two elementary schools where children and adults lined the streets and filled the parking lots and rooftops with banners and balloons and smiles and waves.

In town, the First National Bank closed for 15 minutes as every employee, donning purple, came out to cheer Reese homeward as the Burdette family drove by. The John Deere dealership, car dealerships, and other businesses decorated profusely in purple to welcome their hometown hero.

“I thought she was going to jump out of the car, she was so excited. Of course, we had to stop at the barn first,” Claire said with a smile. “She wanted to see her cow Pantene, and the new heifer calf she had on Tuesday.”

Reese had already named the calf Pardi-Gras because she was born during Mardi-Gras, and last week was a ‘Pardi-Gras,’ of sorts, for the two dairy families of Waverly Farms and Windy-Knoll-View… Reese was finally coming home.

“Only Reese would get another heifer calf,” her mother noted. That’s three heifers in a row for Pantene. Reese smiled at the thought. “Ha! My dad’s been getting bulls!”

Her Momo and Papap — Jim and Nina Burdette — had spent much of the past two years at the hospital. Jim says he had envisioned Reese’s homecoming a thousand times.

“It is such a great relief to have her home. We went up to the parade in town, and then beat it back home quick,” Jim said. “I wanted to be here on that porch looking down and seeing her pull in.” After which, he says, “I promptly beat it down the stairs to see her.”

He had spent some time getting Pantene all cleaned up. “We knew that’s who she’d want to see first,” Jim said. “It was too cold to take Reese into the barn, so Justin brought Pantene out to the car.”

It was a poignant moment for Justin as a father to see his young daughter greet her special cow — the cow she had shared with hundreds of Johns Hopkins staff through a photo book Nina made and through a visit by Pantene, along with coolers full of chocolate milk, at the hospital last year during June Dairy Month.

Having seen Pantene and her calf, it was time to get home. Within minutes, she was sitting proudly in her purple chair, reading with her sister, talking of everything she wanted to do.

“She fell right back into life here, as though she never left,” Claire observes.

Having ‘face-timed’ from the hospital during milking, Reese knows her cows and fought to come home to them.

“I spoiled Pantene,” a smiling Reese admits. “She leads good for me, but not so good for anybody else. You know, once a cow gets to know you, she really likes you.”

The purple sign proclaiming “Keep calm and love cows,” that hung in her hospital room, now hangs at home, next to the words from a song the medical staff would hum before every surgery: “Every little thing gonna be alright.”

The dairy community, local community, faith community and the medical staff that have become like family, have all rallied to support Reese not just because her injuries were so severe, but to celebrate the inspiration of the toughness and grace with which she has persevered, and the way God has worked in her life and through her to help others.

“It feels really good that maybe we have given something that people want to give back,” Jim says with emotion. “So many people have done so many things to help this family. We knew Justin and Claire needed to be with Reese and we would do whatever was necessary to keep the farm going for Reese to come home to.”

Their part-time employee went full-time, they hired another helper, and Nina got back into milking again, sore knees and all, but they would never have made it these past two years, says Jim, without the help of others.

“We are part of a good and kind dairy industry and the best small-town America you can find,” Nina adds. “People taking care of people.”

Claire tells of the thousands of letters and messages her daughter Reese has received. Letters that told stories of how Reese’s battle back from the fire inspired others to face their own battles. She tells of three women in the tri-state region who each sent a card to Reese faithfully every week for nearly 100 weeks. In fact, Reese asked the nurse to check her mail before departing Friday. Claire said every piece of mail has been saved, and as Reese faces new goals and challenges, the letters will be read and re-read.

And the way people rallied to help with medical bills through selling and re-selling cattle, and the various groups and clubs and fund drives too numerous to list here.

The challenges will continue. “We’ve closed one chapter and opened another,” says Claire of her daughter’s journey which continues now at home.

Getting her completely off the ventilator will be the next challenge. But she is home and off to a good start. By her second day home, she was already pestering her Papap to get her back out on the Kubota to pick up her driving lessons right where she left off two years ago. She wanted to ride through the fields and tell him every weed she saw. She wanted to walk through the cattle, and tell her Dad and Papap what they should do with this one or that one.

Her next goal? “I want to be walking good enough to lead Pardi-Gras in the All-American at Harrisburg in September,” she said with a radiant smile.

Asked what she would want to say to readers more than anything, she replied: “Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

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All smiles, Justin and Claire Burdette bring their daughter Reese to the front door of home after 662 days of surgeries and recoveries at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Jean Kummer

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First stop before stepping over the home threshold, was the barn to see Pantene. It was a bit cold Friday, so Justin brought his daughter’s cow right to the car window. Photo by Jean Kummer

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Getting back to the rhythms of daily life at home, Reese takes a break from the screen that transports her to school via robot every day for a picture with her mother Claire Burdette. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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The families of Windy-Knoll View, Mercersburg, Pa. and Waverly Farms, Clear Brook, Va., join the crowds of hometown folk lining the streets of Mercersburg for Reese’s homecoming parade. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Jim Burdette envisioned this day thousands of times over the past 22 months. He knew he wanted to be on the second story porch watching his granddaughter come home. But then he beat it down the stairs for a hug. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Reese’s cow Pantene had a sign of her own for Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Pantene’s third heifer calf Pardi-Gras was born just three days before Reese came home. Photo by Jean Kummer

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At the one end of Reese Way (left), put in between the two home farms when she was born, is Reese’s home. At the other end of the lane (right) is the entrance to Windy-Knoll View. When the Fast Signs company that made all the TeamReese signs came to put this one up, Jim Burdette told them, “Don’t cover the farm sign, Reese will love seeing Pledge, Pala, and Promise here to greet her.” Photo by Sherry Bunting

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The land is awakening. Cattle are out grazing. A special cow has a new heifer calf. And a special young lady — ReeseBurdette — has returned home to the joy of her farm and everyday life after 22 months of recovery at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Reese and Brinkley share a special moment at the hospital on the morning of Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Jean Kummer

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Justin and Claire Burdette with daughters Reese and Brinkley before Reese’s most recent surgery before Christmas. Photo courtesy Jennifer DiDio Photography

 

 

 

 

Days 9 & 10: Paying it forward…

12 days of Christmas with a twist…

By Sherry Bunting

Days 9 & 10: We have all heard about the paying-forward at coffee shops and drive-throughs. I recently heard of a woman randomly giving cash to shoppers at a local department store. Isn’t that what Christ did for all of us? Isn’t that what God did by sending His son to be born among us that we may live? In my more than 30 years as an ag writer, what I have witnessed in the agriculture community is the profound, largely anonymous and often selfless way this community prays it and pays it forward as seen with two families — beloved cattle breeders — one suffering a tragic loss, the other continuing their over 19-month journey with an inspirational little girl. The  links in the story below take you to ways to help these two families to feel their love returned to them in abundance.  (Portions reprinted from Milk Market Moos in the Dec. 18, 2015 edition of Farmshine.)

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Since Farmshine did not publish on the week of Christmas, I began last week’s column, with gratitude, wishing readers a Merry Christmas, a holiday of light piercing darkness.

Thank you for your hard work, your care and pride in your cows, your passion for producing a quality, wholesome and nutritious product we can enjoy and benefit from… and above all the way you rally to help one another in a time of need.

We see this repeated time and again, and recently, as farms in Pennsylvania suffered great losses of cattle from events such as a fire and a collapse as well as in other regions  storms and floods.

Farm families rally to help each other pick up and move forward. When one is injured, others are there to help take those steps forward. And, when one is lost, others are there to remember, and to stand with their families.

During this holiday season, enjoy the fruits of your labor beyond the tangible. While margins in farming are razor thin, it is the wealth of the spirit to be thankful for when the going gets tough.

The barn is a magical place this time of year, the humble earthly place where God presented to mankind His gift of unmatched love and mercy. The opportunities I have to feed a few head of livestock here at home are daily reminders that nothing beats the feeling of putting down fresh feed as the sun sets and watching the animals eat, then lie down and chew cud.

Wishing you and your families a blessed Christmas with some time to enjoy making new family memories while also reflecting on, and holding close, the memories of the loved ones who’ve gone before us.

I think of Jeremy McDonald’s family as he passed away unexpectedly last week in an accident. In 2007, I had the privilege of visiting with him at the family’s Century Farm near Middleville, Virginia and writing about his passion for cattle. His family’s beef, dairy and produce farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley represents four generations of passion for cattle and the land, and especially his Shen-Val Brown Swiss.

As fellow Brown Swiss breeder Allen Bassler puts it: “His love for cows was extra special. He had a great eye for dairy and beef. I got to watch him judge with Wayne Sliker at World Dairy Expo. It was so nice to see this event happen in his life.”

Jeremy was 39, but had already left quite an impact on others who describe the quiet and professional way in which he helped other young people find their passion for farming and registered cattle.

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A devoted husband to wife Missy, loving father to son Tyler, and cherished son to Gary and Sharon, Jeremy will be missed. Halfway to its goal, A GoFundMe site has been set up for his family.

To me, nothing says what this industry is made of more than the way folks have rallied to support and champion the recovery of Reese Burdette. That kind of support is the glue that makes the dairy family, worldwide, a special one.

The healing power of love, for sure.

In June, I wrote in Farmshine about the visit of Reese’s special cow, Pantene, to Johns Hopkins in downtown Baltimore where Reese has been since May 26, 2014. Reese has been away from home for over 19 months since she was saved from a house fire that day by her grandmother Patricia Stiles. Having suffered burns on over 35% of her body, Reese has undergone countless procedures, including being in a medically induced coma for four months.

She pushes herself in physical and occupational therapy. The special visit with Pantene was a target for working hard in therapy.

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“When the therapist asked Reese to stand longer or take more steps, it was all a build-up for ‘being strong when you see Pantene,’” Jackson explained.

“Dairy did good! This family makes a lasting impression,” Jackson observed. “Reese has brought the dairy community together like I have never seen before. She has made us all believe in the power of prayer. She has made us believe in miracles. She inspires us every day.”

The family has spent two Christmas Day celebrations in the hospital with their Reese as she recovers.

The Team Reese Blood Drive for the Red Cross had generated over 500 units of blood in its first month and another 400+ people pledged or donated blood in Reese’s honor last June, alone. The family wanted to give back by asking friends and family to help replace the blood she has needed over the past year. The Red Cross celebrity blood drive has picked up Reese’s story, and many celebrities are sharing it in the hopes of getting even more people to donate blood. Donations in her honor can be pledged online at SleevesUp for Team Reese on Facebook.

People ask what they can do to help the Burdette family, specifically, in their long journey… A giveforward fund continues for the family and Team Reese T-shirts can be ordered online

 

Day 1: Milk and ministry are gifts that keep giving

12 days of Christmas… with a twist.

Day 1:  I met these folks last summer, learning of this mission to Bolivia that is rooted in Pennsylvania while visiting the Rice family of Prairieland Dairy in Nebraska last Spring. Two stories in two dairy publications resulted at long last. This one was the cover story in the Nov. 27, 2015 Farmshine and another will be found in the Dec. 14 edition of Progressive Dairyman. What these folks are doing is “love in action” for sure. Milk and ministry are gifts that keep giving. They’d love to share the project with others by speaking at dairy, church and other meetings where people have a passion for children, ministry… and milk!

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The Bolivian dairy project committee met a few months ago near Breezewood, Pa. to talk about plans to build a dairy processing facility and future retail store: (l-r) Karen Hawbaker, Dave Pullen, Pete Hamming, Robin Harchak, and Love in Action International Ministries co-directors Jerri and Gary Zimmerman. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By Sherry Bunting 

BREEZEWOOD, Pa. — The people we love and lose in our lifetimes leave indelible imprints on how we view the world and connect with others and where we put our time and energies.

For the dairy producers and industry folks involved with Andrea’s Home of Hope and Joy — an orphanage of individual family units in Bolivia — the ‘Love in Action’ is linked to folks from Pennsylvania wanting to see that these children have the gift that keeps giving — Milk, of course!

The first seeds to build a dairy farm at Andrea’s Home were planted by the late Rodney Hawbaker, a Franklin County, Pa. dairy farmer. In late 2007, Hawbaker and his industry friends — Dave Pullen, a dairy nutritionist, Pete Hamming with AI, and Robin Harchak, a milking equipment specialist — brought their idea to Gary and Jerri Zimmerman of Love In Action International Ministries (LIAIM).

By 2009, they were fundraising, designing and planning for a dairy future at Andrea’s Home.

Known as Warm Springs Farm (Finca Aguas de Manantial), the Bolivian dairy project is so named in honor of Hawbaker, who died in a tragic farm accident in 2011 at the family’s Warm Springs Dairy, Chambersburg, Pa.

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The late Rodney Hawbaker in 2010 with Wilson, one of the children at Andrea’s Home of Hope and Joy, where Hawbaker was instrumental in starting the Bolivian dairy project. It is now entering its next phase named in Hawbaker’s honor as Warm Spring Farm. Photo by Karen Hawbaker

“This was Rodney’s passion,” recalls his wife Karen during a planning meeting of the LIAIM dairy committee just off the Breezewood exit of the Pa. turnpike recently. Karen runs the 160-cow dairy in Franklin County and has taken Rodney’s place on the LIAIM board and dairy committee as well as volunteering with daughter Kirsten to help with the dairy’s progress at Andrea’s Home.

“Rodney was instrumental in helping design the barn as well as spearheading the initial fundraising through our church and a heifer sale in September of 2009,” Karen relates. “Rodney, Pete, Dave and Robin really dug into this, and we would travel to Bolivia every few months to work with the children and provide labor for the barn.”

Andrea’s Home, too, has its history — so-named for the Zimmermans’ youngest daughter Andrea, whom they had lost to cancer. Gary, a carpenter, and Jerri, a teacher, continued their mission work by fulfilling Andrea’s dream to focus the mission work on children. Thus, they set up Andrea’s Home of Hope and Joy through LIAIM. With the advent of the dairy project, the concept of Andrea’s Home has the potential to become a somewhat self-sustaining model for the future.

Divided into four 2-parent / 20 child units, Andrea’s Home currently serves 63 children with plans to build four more to serve 120 children. The dairy has become a key aspect of the planning to realize the goals of expanding Andrea’s Home and to build at a second location.

The heifers and bull for the dairy were delivered in 2014, with calvings ramping up through the summer and fall. Now plans are underway to build a processing facility and retail store.

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Cows are housed on a bedded pack and milked in eight stalls using a vacuum and bucket system — doable with limited funds and infrastructure. Photo by Karen Hawbaker

 

The cow-to- consumer dairy has a fourfold purpose: Nutrition for the children, education and skills for the children, a business plan that improves the community infrastructure while employing members of the community, and eventual retail dairy sales to support the growth and mission of Andrea’s Home.

The nearby town of Guayaramerin is home to over 40,000 people. The region is isolated and poor with many children orphaned by tough lives on the street. Being just a mile from the Brazilian border — where coffee houses proliferate — the hope is that Warm Spring Farm can provide a source of milk for the orphanage, the town and additional offshoot sales to tourists crossing the Brazilian border, through a coffee and smoothie house run by the home.

“We are looking for others in this compassionate dairy industry with the heart to come down to Bolivia and help with the processing end of what we are planning,” Gary Zimmerman explained. “We want to have the capability to produce milk and also yogurt, butter and ice cream with the whole project providing a source of revenue for the orphanage, as well as learning opportunities, work and nutrition for the orphans.”

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Robin Harchak works on the milking parlor. The challenge will be to convert to more advanced technologies as the dairy processing construction is planned. Photo by Karen Hawbaker

“We’re ministering to the needs of the orphans, and also trying to change the culture of what they return to for their futures and that of the region,” he added. For example, when the children age-out of the home, they will have skills and a purpose and something to turn to and a good base on which to continue their education.

Gifted 230 acres of land by the veterinarian who today serves as the farm’s director, they have stocked natural springs with fish and planted orchards and gardens, along with the work of getting the dairy up and running.

The processing and retailing idea began to form when five acres became available last year in the nearby town of Guayaramerin. With a location to build a retail store, the processing facility plan became the logical next step.

Since 2008, the group closest to the Warm Spring Farm project have worked to raise funds and to gather and send work crews to build the dairy. Now that the focus has shifted to processing and retail construction, they are reaching out in search of folks with this expertise. One such person is David Rice, a former Berks Countian who has two sons dairying near Kempton, Pa. and a son that is manager and partner in Prairieland Dairy out in Firth, Nebraska.

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Dave and Gloria Rice of Firth, Nebraska (formerly from Berks County, Pa.)

Rice bring his building and dairy background, along with knowledge of the milk bottling and ice cream making at Prairieland, to his volunteer trips to Andrea’s Home.

He observes that, “Not only will the young people learn agriculture and industry skills, they will also learn the business side of operating the future store.”

“All the profits will go back to benefiting the home, and to build a second home with the idea that the business can be developed to cover 65 to 75 percent of the cost of the home’s operation, which now relies mostly on donations,” Zimmerman explains.

While the dairy’s initial cowherd consists of a native breed suited to the climate of life right on the Equator, the dairy committee plans to improve the herd with good milking genetics via AI crossbreeding.

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As first calvings and milking are underway, the director brings milk to the home from his own primarily beef herd, and the children learn to make dairy products for their own use.

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Karen and Rodney Hawbaker’s daughter Kirsten with children at Andrea’s Home of Hope and Joy.

While there are no other dairies in this poor region of northeast Bolivia, the LIAIM dairy committee, and the folks at the home, have toured Brazilian dairies to look at cropping systems and forage ideas such as sugar cane and yucca root, which can be fed as green chop to boost dietary energy for more milk production.

 

The milking facility uses a vacuum and bucket system, which serves well its current purpose.

“Bolivia is the poorest South American country, and this LIAIM ministry seeks to reach the children here to provide the nutrition of milk while teaching business and industry skills that they can learn to be a part of,” Karen Hawbaker added. “We want to raise them and equip them for life. What better way to teach work habits and skills then through dairy.”

Hamming noted that the kids just love the dairy farm, the animals, seeing things grow, and are anxious to see the whole project move forward.

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Karen Hawbaker at Andrea’s Home…

Rodney’s good friend and area veterinarian Corey Meyers, DVM, wrote of Hawbaker after his passing: “Rod knew his purpose in life. He got it. Just days before the accident he had commented to friends in a Bible study in Ecclesiastes: ‘When I hear of a righteous man dying, I take it as a challenge or as a reminder that you never know when your time is up. Live each day as if it were your last.’”

Members of the LIAIM dairy committee are also interested in speaking at dairy meetings to raise awareness of the Bolivian dairy project at Andrea’s Home of Hope and Joy.

To learn more visit www.myloveinaction.com. Director Gary Zimmerman can be contacted at 719.440.6979 or email liaim@aol.com

Farmshine

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