Sigma Alpha raises funds for fire victims

The K-State Collegiate Cattlemen’s Club stands in a burned pasture during Fake Patty’s Day weekend after helping fix fence for ranchers affected by the fires. (Photo Courtesy of Cami Roth)

After March fires burned more than 1 million acres across parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Kansas, support for Kansas farmers and ranchers in Clark, Comanche and Meade counties has continued to pour in from across the country.

On a more local level, Kansas State’s Sigma Alpha sorority has worked to raise money for the ranchers through a T-shirt sale campaign, said Sydney Bigger, senior in animal sciences and industry and fundraising chair for Sigma Alpha. Proceeds from sales of the shirts, which will say, “Praying for the Plains,” will be sent to the affected ranchers.

“People want to give, but they don’t know how,” Bigger said. “I think people are just seeing the campaign, and they want to give and that’s a way they can support it.”

The professional agricultural sorority began its campaign on March 8 and had sold 50 shirts, a third of their goal of 150, within a few hours. As of Thursday afternoon, the sorority had sold 1,512 shirts and raised $19,300. The T-shirt is the most popular current campaign on the crowdfunding site Booster.

Brittany Hilfiker, junior in animal sciences and industry and originally from Nebraska, bought a T-shirt to support the cause because she said the ranchers in southwest Kansas are part of her agricultural family.

“Coming from a different state to K-State, I didn’t have a family here per se, but I found my family in agriculture and specifically the College of Agriculture,” Hilfiker said. “Twenty bucks for a T-shirt is relatively small in comparison to the financial burdens they are going to have in southwest Kansas.”

One of the ranching families affected was the Clawsons, who lost some cattle, about 20 miles of fencing and between 6,000 and 8,000 acres of pasture.

“We lost quite a few acres of pasture and some cows, but it was nothing compared to my neighbors,” David Clawson said. “They were impacted much more, and our heart goes out to everyone else.”

Clawson said after the fires, his community of Ashland was initially in shock, and that the support of the agriculture community has been greatly appreciated.

“The outpouring of the support from the nation has been overwhelming to us, but we have needed that,” Clawson said. “That whole process has helped us through the healing process.”

More than just money

After buying T-shirts, many K-State students — including Bigger and Hilfiker — gave up weekends and parts of their spring break to volunteer in Ashland.

Bigger volunteered with the K-State Collegiate Cattlemen’s Club over Fake Patty’s Day weekend to rebuild fences. Her group helped a rancher who lost 90 percent of his home, his cowherd and all of his machine sheds. After the students built fencing around one small wheat pasture, the rancher sent them down the road to help his neighbor, Bigger said.

“He literally had nothing,” Bigger said. “But they’re more worried about their neighbor being OK than themselves.”

Bigger was inspired to help after watching her community in Illinois pull together after a 2008 flood that destroyed homes.

“I just knew this community was going to pull together in the same way, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Bigger said.

Dan Clawson, David’s brother, said the fire has brought the community together.

“People figure out what’s really important,” Dan Clawson said. “We get wrapped up in our everyday busy life, and this kind of slowed everybody down.”

Having raised cattle herself, Hilfiker said the events in southwest Kansas hit home, and she wanted to help. Hilfiker spent a day during spring break tearing out fence, a small act to help the ranchers who had lost their livelihoods, she said.

“This is prime calving season all across the country,” Hilfiker said. “You just want to do something to help. We go down and we give a day, and then we get to come home when we’re sore and our hands are cut up and blistered, and they’re right back out there the next day.”

Dan Clawson said the fires have given his family a lot of extra work, but the support people have shown has been amazing.

“Just the time that they come down and spend, whether it is tearing down fence or driving a load of hay in, it’s just been overwhelming,” Dan Clawson said.

David agreed with his brother and added that the agriculture industry is one of the few industries where support like what the ranchers of southwest Kansas have experienced can be found.

“We’re just so proud to be in the agriculture industry,” David Clawson said. “People don’t call and ask what needs to be done, they just show up and they are there. It’s just heartwarming to see the support from everyone.”

The larger K-State family

Hilfiker and Bigger said the generosity of the agriculture industry and K-State’s family atmosphere are a big reason why Sigma Alpha’s T-shirt campaign has been successful.

“Yeah, it’s your K-State family, but your K-State family is so much bigger than K-State — it’s the whole state of Kansas,” Bigger said.

After passing the 150-shirt goal, Bigger said she hopes Sigma Alpha raises $20,000. Bigger said she was humbled by the public’s generosity, as almost 40 percent of what has been raised is people donating money on top of buying a T-shirt. The T-shirt campaign runs through the end of the day Sunday.

“It restores your faith in humanity,” Bigger said. “There are good people, there are lots of good people.”