As president and CEO of Heifer International, one of the largest charities in the U.S., it would be reasonable to see Pierre Ferrari living in an upscale apartment in downtown Little Rock, where he could walk to work every day. When he took over as CEO five years ago, that’s where he started.
“I went downtown first of all, there’s a lot of development, very high-end elite condos and I started moving around there to figure out a place I could live and it’s very pleasant and very comfortable,” Ferrari said. “I always felt that it wasn’t quite the right place for me … It just didn’t sort of fit the work we do to end poverty and hunger.”
Instead, Ferrari decided about a year ago to live out the spirit of Heifer and stays in a two-room space at the 105-year-old St. Joseph Center of Arkansas in North Little Rock.
“If you’re thinking from sort of upper middle class, elite American life, this is pretty humble. But given what we do where the frame of reference might be in Bolivia or Nepal, this is highly luxurious — there’s water, there’s electricity, there’s air conditioning, cleanliness, safety, everything is here,” Ferrari said. “So I choose to use that frame.”
Ferrari works to promote Heifer’s message to end hunger and poverty and create sustainable agriculture through extensive training and providing livestock to areas around the world that are in need.
“I am so humbled by his willingness to live here in its rustic conditions,” said Sandy DeCoursey, the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas board chairwoman.
DeCoursey said at the fourth annual Bishop’s Dinner held at St. Joseph Center Sept. 10 to raise money for the historic preservation of the grounds, Ferrari explained to attendees that by living at the center, “he was just trying to follow the teachings of Matthew 25 — it’s good to show humility and solidarity with the mission of Heifer.”
St. Joseph Center, formerly St. Joseph Home, the Diocese of Little Rock-owned orphanage that opened in 1910, partners with Heifer sharing its Foodshed Farm CSA program, that helps farmers create local sustainable agriculture in the community through food markets.
“It’s working well, they’re growing the number of CSA buyers and members … all the work we’re doing is to create a food system that can supply high-quality, competitively priced, locally grown and grown by farmers who are by some degree challenged economically or financially,” Ferrari said. “I’m very encouraged by the progress.”
Though he keeps an arm’s length to avoid being the hovering CEO, he enjoys spending time with the farmers. While Ferrari doesn’t stay long enough to keep his own garden with produce at the center — he stays at St. Joseph about 25 percent of the year, with his family living in Atlanta — the farmers who stop by the center are generous with their vegetables.
“To actually hear the farmers talk about the soil and everything they were doing, that was interesting for me,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I could kick the dirt and pretend I’m a farmer.”
Ferrari pays rent to stay at St. Joseph, which in turn helps its preservation, but the calming environment is a benefit to him more than anything, particularly during his morning walks.
“I go down towards where the cattle are held. I’d say it’s about a half a mile walk, so 10 to 15 minutes. It’s beautiful — It’s slightly rolling, it’s very green, the soils been worked very well so it’s very fertile. There’s a little pond there so it’s nice,” Ferrari said. “There’s a lot of evidence that being in the country and around trees and everything else actually not only relaxes you, but improves your mental agility.”
The 56,000-square-foot building also reminds him of his childhood attending Catholic boarding schools.
“My wife told me, ‘This is like home for you.’ It feels very comfortable. I like the chapel, the rooms and corridors, things like that are very familiar to my childhood,” Ferrari said, adding he is no longer a practicing Catholic, but a “follower of Jesus” and makes good use of the chapel. After making his breakfast, he rests in the upper balcony of the chapel. “I sit there in silent mediation/prayer for about 10 minutes. It’s very calming.”
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