Skeeter Ballard and Zach Rebstock, United Cooperative Services, Texas
The NRECA International Foundation routinely sends volunteers overseas to work on projects that help provide reliable electricity to rural communities that don’t have it. Recently, Skeeter Ballard and Zach Rebstock from United Cooperative Services in Texas traveled more than 5,000 miles to help SOCOEPA (Cooperativea Electrica Paillaco), an electric co-op in Paillaco, Chile for the Smart Grid Alliance for the Americas (SGAA) program. SGAA is an innovative partnership that shares experience and provides technical assistance in smart grid technology applications to cooperative, municipal and other small electric distribution utilities in Latin America.
SOCOEPA was founded in 1956 and currently operates more than 1,000 miles of line in mountainous terrain. While in Paillaco, Skeeter and Zach worked alongside SOCOEPA employees to share their expertise in applying smart grid technologies to increase efficiencies in the existing systems at SOCOEPA. This was the first time traveling to Chile for both of them, and each had an experience of a lifetime. Here’s a little snapshot of their experience:
What was the best thing about the trip?
Skeeter: Getting to meet the folks down there, learning and sharing with them was the best part. They have a different way of life—they don’t get caught up in daily stresses and are relaxed. These people are content, but that doesn’t mean they work any less. There’s a lot we can learn from them.
How has it changed your perspective on your personal/professional life?
Zach: I knew what hard work was but I had never seen any work ethic that inspired me as much as the people of Paillaco. The main SOCOEPA engineer we worked with works two jobs to provide for his family. He would work from 7 am to 6 pm at his co-op, then go to his second job at an engineering firm and work until 11 pm. He was accustomed to that, which was a shock to me. The culture as a whole in that area was busy from sunrise to sundown, and they always have a smile on their face even though they’ve been working all day long.
What did you learn about the people?
Skeeter: The reason why they work hard is because they have to. Not everyone has a car, they don’t have what we have. That’s the way it is. The people at SOCOEPA were awesome. We spent time with good people and enjoyed the heck out of them. Although there was a lot of talking with our hands, we had a great translator who made it easier for us to communicate and create memories. I wish we had more time with them.
What did you learn about their co-op?
Zach: There were many similarities in the nature of how co-ops do business. They strive to give the best service to their members. I could see how well they build their lines, their systems, had a friendly nature, and interacted with members.
What was the most challenging part of the trip?
Zach: I was a medic on an ambulance for 3-4 years, so I’ve always wanted to help people. But the idea of going across the world to help people was intimidating. I kept calculating in my mind how I was going to do that versus how I’m used to helping people here in the US.
What has this volunteer opportunity taught you?
Skeeter: The most important thing I realized was that we can get more things done if more people volunteered. Even with language barriers, we were able to communicate our progress as well as learn and teach new things. We let them know about our achievements, and we celebrated those achievements together. It’s a small world and I went halfway around the globe to realize that.