CHICAGO — Rabbits in Guatemala. Goats in Zambia. Even earthworms in Chicago.

These are the animals that the Heifer Project International uses to give needy families self-sufficiency. The project, which started in 1944, has now brought animals to over 4 million families — everything from bees to yaks.

The project emphasizes that recipients are equal partners. Waiva Worthley, a volunteer with the project, said, “Heifer Project doesn't shove things down people's throats. It works to fill their needs — not what we think they need.”

Kate Sheehan helped the Heifer Project coordinate its efforts in the Massachusetts Catholic community. Parishes held fundraisers to purchase a “Gift Ark” — $5,000 worth of sheep, beehives, geese, pigs and assorted beasts.

Sheehan said that the program's Christian origin, focus on “care for God's creation,” and respect for the animals’ recipients made it a good fit for Catholics. She said that the program emphasized that “every person is sacred” by viewing recipients as “partners” who can help others rather than simply taking aid.

For example, in 1994 Beatrice Biira's mother was one of a group of Ugandan women who asked for a goat. The seven Biiras lived in a one-room straw hut with no furniture, electricity or water.

Beatrice sold their nanny goat's milk and the animal's first male off- spring, making enough to go to school for the first time. The first female kid was handed on to another poor family, a process the program calls “passing on the gift.” Anyone who receives an animal must pass on an animal, and anyone who receives training must train someone else.

When the Heifer Project checked back with the Biiras a few months later, the hut had blue wooden furniture and a tin roof.

Today, they have a flock of goats.

More than 60 other families in their village also have goats. The Heifer Project arranged for Beatrice to become the subject of a New York Times best selling children's book, Beatrice's Goat .

The Heifer Project began when Dan West, a farmer and teacher from Indiana and a member of the Church of the Brethren, was assigned to do alternative service as a conscientious objector. He went to Spain to do hunger relief work.

He was handing out cups of powdered milk to “long lines of mothers and children,” said Rosalie Sim, the program's northeast director.

“He had to decide sometimes who got the milk and who didn't,” she said. “And he looked around and saw that they were standing in the middle of green pastures.”

His farmer's instincts roused, he decided that Spain didn't need cupfuls of powdered milk; it needed cows to produce the real thing.

When he returned to the States, he founded what was then called Heifers for Hope. The first cows went to Puerto Rico in 1944. The program now operates in 30 areas of the U.S. and 100 countries. It offers not just animals but training in everything from milking to marketing. And passing on the gift also means that one animal can eventually feed and produce for an entire village.

The gifts are tailored to recipients’ situations. Landless families often get rabbits, which don't take up much space, while farmers might get a water buffalo.

The program operates even in closed societies like North Korea, so it must refrain from taking any political stands. Although it has been forced out of a few countries by unrest, it is usually able to return, since most governments appreciate the work it does in staving off poverty.

Heifer Project gifts can lead to start-up businesses. One Indian woman sold a Heifer Project goat, and used the proceeds to open a gem-cutting business. A Thai family's revenue from a water buffalo enabled them to reap 3,300 pounds of rice a year.

And Joseph Tinkamanyire of Uganda used proceeds from the cows he received to feed orphans and establish a school for them.

Kids Love Worms

It isn't every day that earthworms can make a tough teen-ager cry.

But Worthley remembered the day when the Heifer Project International brought red worms to the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project that the city of Chicago has since torn down. Teens at risk of joining gangs could find a better after- school activity, and make some cash, by raising worms and selling the fertilizer.

A retiring commercial worm farmer decided to donate most of his stock to the group. Worthley watched as teen-agers from the projects received the worms that they would care for and sell. “Here's a guy who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes,” she recalled, “and what's he getting? Worms! And he cried. Because he couldn't believe somebody was giving him a gift.”

“The allure of worm farming in the city is that worms can be kept inside,” Worthley said. “You're producing a commodity you can sell all year long: the worms, and the worms’ castings, which are an excellent fertilizer.”

She added, “Kids are fascinated with worms. If you take an urban kid who doesn't have much exposure to animals at all and you say they can feed the worms, touch the worms, that in itself is a huge draw.”

Elsewhere in the United States, the Heifer Project offers bigger livestock.

Francis Boisvert, a Maine farmer who received pigs and goats from the project and is now a volunteer, said, “It's not just the animals. It's the friendship.”

He said that many people in the isolated, mountainous Maine countryside needed contact with other people as much as they needed the income from an animal. But in one- room cabins lit by gas lamps, the money means a lot too. One woman came up to Boisvert and his wife at a county fair to thank them for selling her a cow: “It made enough money to send her girl and boy through college,” Boisvert said.

For Catholics, the reasons for such a program are straightforward. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church bluntly puts it (No. 2443): “God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them.”