Meet Our Volunteers

Meet the volunteers who traveled overseas to provide training, technical assistance, and teach new skills that will enable a better economic future, using the power of electricity.

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  • Ashley Johnson, Horry Electric Cooperative

    Ashley Johnson, Horry Electric Cooperative, Conway, South Carolina

    Ashley Johnson, Horry Electric Cooperative, Conway, South Carolina

    U.S. Co-op: Horry Electric Cooperative, Conway, South Carolina
    Profession:
    Lineman/Training Coordinator
    Volunteer in countries:
    Dominican Republic and Sudan

    "I wanted to help others who don’t have as much as we do. I see what my children have and they don’t, and I wanted to help make a difference."

    In 1998, Hurricane Georges was the second most destructive storm of the season, affecting six countries, mainly in the Caribbean. One of the most affected was the Dominican Republic.

    Two years later, there was still little hope for a few of the hard hit villages on the eastern shore. With funding from USAID, NRECA International was finally able to begin rebuilding the system in two villages. Twenty linemen in total traveled for two weeks at a time to rebuild the system from ground-up. Ashley was one of those volunteers.

    Even though language was a barrier, Ashley formed personal connections with the people. During that assignment, he received a hand-made saddle as a gift from one of the local families. People recognized that he came to help and they were truly appreciative.

    In 2005, Ashley again volunteered for the NRECA International Foundation. He became the first of the volunteers to go to Yei, Sudan, to help with the training of the local crews and to start building the distribution system of the newly established co-op. He made an instant connection with the local people — the kids especially. In the three weeks Ashley was in Yei, he made a huge difference, not only in the technical service he performed but in the friendships he made. People came to trust him and the other Americans working with the local co-op to help bring hope and power back to the village.

  • Brad Libbert and Travis Lumpkin, Three Rivers Electric Cooperative, Missouri

    "Brad Libbert & Travis Lumpkin"

    U.S. Co-op: Three Rivers Electric Cooperative, Missouri
    Profession:
    Linemen
    Volunteer in countries:
    Sudan

    "Traveling to a third world country is something that most people don't have a chance to experience. I thought it would be a once in a lifetime chance. I am glad I made the trip. It was good to help the Sudanese people."

    In September 2009, the NRECA International Foundation sponsored a volunteer trip to Maridi, Sudan — part of an ongoing effort to electrify villages in that war-torn African nation. The Maridi project involved the construction of a street lighting system for the town.

    Travis Lumpkin and Brad Libbert, linemen from Three Rivers Electric Cooperative in Linn, Mo., were part of the Maridi volunteer group. They offer their insights on the trip.

    Libbert helps crew secure a guy wire

    Libbert helps crew secure a guy wire

    Why did you decide to get involved with the NRECA International Foundation?

    Lumpkin: Traveling to a third-world country is something that most people don’t have a chance to experience. I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I am glad I made the trip. It was good to help the Sudanese people.

    Libbert: I thought it would be good to help others, too, and travel to another country.

    What were your impressions of Maridi and Sudan?

    Libbert: Sudan’s weather is hot and dry, except during the rainy season, which is when we visited. We were happy for the rain every day, because the temperatures dropped from about 100 degrees to 80-some degrees.

    Lumpkin: There were some areas of the country that were very pretty. But overall, Sudan is a very poor country.What was the work like? 

    Lumpkin: Overall, the work was hard without the use of the tools we use at Three Rivers Electric Cooperative every day. But it was very rewarding. It was good to get back to our cooperative though, where we have the “luxury” of using power tools and bucket trucks that they don’t have in Sudan.

    Libbert:  The local men we worked with were very eager to work and even more excited to learn about electricity and line work. And installing street lights gave the locals a chance to see the results from electricity instantaneously.

    There was a difficulty communicating because of the language barrier, but we were able to deal with that.

    Lumpkin (left) and Libbert with Sudanese crew members

    Lumpkin (left) and Libbert with Sudanese crew members

    Would you volunteer again?

    strong>Libbert: I'd definitely consider volunteering for an NRECA International Foundation project again. I want to stay at home for a while, though, and enjoy things like home-cooked meals, cold drinks, a comfortable bed and hot showers.

    Lumpkin:  And running water. And, of course, real “American” football.

    It was a great experience though.  I'll always remember it.

    One funny thing we brought that I'd definitely remember to bring next time is several bottles of hot sauce and rolls of toilet paper. The folks from NRECA International strongly suggested we take items like that, and were we ever glad we did.

  • Eddie Ferguson, Habersham EMC, Georgia

    Volunteer Eddie Ferguson with a local lineman in Yei, Sudan

    Volunteer Eddie Ferguson with a local lineman in Yei, Sudan

    U.S. Co-op: Habersham EMC, Georgia
    Profession:
    Supervisor of Materials
    Volunteer in countries:
    Yei, Southern Sudan

    "I would go back. I enjoyed it. It's great to help out and be a part of something like this. After going through this, I understood what people went through in the 30s, when they were starting cooperatives here in the United States."

    Eddie Ferguson, supervisor of materials for Habersham EMC in Clarkesville, Ga., had seen several of his co-op co-workers go overseas as volunteers for NRECA International. He'd always wanted to do the same. So when the call went out for warehouse help in Yei, Southern Sudan, this 31-year veteran and grandfather of two was quick to respond.

    Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

    I've been with Habersham for 31 years. I started as a warehouse clerk and then I came on as the purchasing agent in 1999. I've been in that position ever since. I'm the supervisor of materials now.

    Personally, I've been married to my wife for 33 years and have two daughters who are 30 and 31. I have two granddaughters — one is two and one is seven months old. We're pretty proud of them too.

    Why did you decide to get involved with NRECA international?

    Some of our guys had already been down to Costa Rica and Guatemala. I've just always wanted to go overseas. I guess I was interested in the adventure. But when I got to Sudan, it became so much more.

    What were your impressions of Sudan?

    It was fascinating to see the people of Sudan. I was very happy to be there and help improve their lives — and to help improve life for the next generation. It's just a different world from what I've ever experienced. What kind of work did you do there? I was charged with getting the warehouse organized. First I did an inventory, then a little organization. But here's the catch: We had to build some shelves and bins from scratch. Here, in the States, I would have taken some measurements, called a vendor, and they would have come and set them up for us. Over there, everything is manual.

    How would you summarize your experience?

    It was great. The people of Yei were really good to us. They were just plain friendly. They joked and cut up with us. They were patient with us, and we were patient with them. It was a mutual kind of thing.

    Would you do it again?

    I would go back. I enjoyed it. It's great to help out and be a part of something like this. After going through this, I understood what people went through in the 30s, when they were starting cooperatives here in the United States. My wife says I'm not going back — because she missed me too much. But I have to be honest. I was more excited about seeing a Big Mac and Coke than I was to see her when I got back!

  • Gayvin Strantz, Indiana Statewide

    Gayvin Strantz,  Volunteer to Guatemala

    Gayvin Strantz (seconnd from left), Volunteer to Guatemala

    U.S. Co-op: Indiana Statewide Association
    Profession:
    Manager of Safety and Loss Control
    Volunteer in countries:
    Guatemala

    "I will never forget the faces of those children when we turned the light on for the first time. It is rare that you get to give someone something they have never had before that will change their life."

    From mid-August to mid-September 2012, 32 volunteers traveled to remote western Guatemala to bring electricity to three isolated villages. The project, dubbed "Hoosiers Power the World," was an endeavor in the making for more than a year and ultimately brought electricity to more than 1,000 people. Along on the trip was Gayvin Strantz,  the manager of Safety and Loss Control at the Indiana Statewide Association of RECs. Gayvin was one of the co-op leaders who traveled to Guatemala to scope out the project long before the crews arrived in the summer. He returned with the first group of volunteers in August and stayed for the full four weeks from start to finish.

    Tell us a little about yourself.

    I started in this industry more than 40 years ago. I began my career working at Logansport Municipal for seven years and then moved on to White County REMC for seven years. The rest of my career has been spent at Indiana Statewide, where I have been for 26 years.

    Why did you want to get involved with the project in Guatemala? What was your motivation for staying for four weeks?

    My main motivation for the project was to make sure our Indiana linemen were protected and safe. That was my main purpose. After I spent time with the villagers, however, they won my heart and I became committed to bringing the children hope and a better future.

    What was the most challenging part of the project?

    By far, the most challenging part of the project was the altitude. We were working between 6,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. The physical toll was more than we anticipated. It made even the simplest tasks exhausting.

    What was the most memorable moment of the trip? In May, a group of us went on a scouting trip to look over the job site in advance of our August/September project. I had no idea what it would take to even get up the mountain — let alone do the job. Seeing the roads, or lack thereof, gave me a whole new view of the challenge we had ahead of us.

    The way the local villagers worked alongside us is something I will never forget. We would never have accomplished what we did if they had not been working right alongside us. The work ethic was incredible. It really makes the whole thing more worthwhile when the people you are there to help are willing to help themselves.

    Has it changed you and your perspective on your job? How?

    I am forever changed as a result of this project. I am so incredibly grateful for what I have in the United States. We take for granted the opportunities and abundance we have here that they just don't have. Some of the houses were nothing more than four sheets of tin with one on top and a fire pit in the middle. When I stop and take a look at the trip, I went for the Indiana linemen. I wanted them to be safe. When I got there, I saw the kids. I will never forget the faces of those children when we turned the light on for the first time. It is rare that you get to give someone something they have never had before that will change their life. We got to do that for these kids. I will never be the same.

    Any words of advice for others wanting to undertake such a large project?

    The scouting trip saved us. We had no idea what we were dealing with before that trip. I would not have been able to guess what we needed until I saw what the conditions were and what tools they did not have access to. It gave us a chance of getting the right amount of supplies and equipment and allowed us to prepare the linemen who were going to serve for the type of conditions they would be working in.

    Also plan for more people than estimated to want service. Prior to us, a contracting company had promised to electrify the village and had not followed through on that promise. The locals were very skeptical and distrustful. When they saw we were going to do what we said we would do, many more came up and asked to have service run to their homes as well. We were able to make it happen, but had to purchase more supplies onsite.

    Any parting comments or observations?

    The look on the faces of the children when we turned the lights on for the first time was priceless. I will never forget those faces radiating joy and hope.

  • Gwen Thomas, East Central Energy

    Gwen Thomas, East Central Energy

    Gwen Thomas, East Central Energy

    U.S. Co-op: East Central Energy
    Profession:
    Senior Vice President
    Volunteer in countries:
    Haiti

    How long have you been in the cooperative world?

    "My experience in Haiti was life-altering. Meeting the people and being a part of something that has the potential to enrich the quality of their lives was amazing. It is difficult to explain the fire this project lit within me."

    I joined East Central Energy (ECE) in 1981.

    Can you tell us a little bit about your career path?

    I was hired as a member services clerk II (we had funny titles with numbers back then) with the role of handling customer bill complaints and energy management inquiries. I also processed all Energy Resource Conservation loans for the co-op. I was promoted to member services representative with more customer contact responsibilities and later to communications coordinator, responsible for all of the cooperative's member and employee communications and marketing.

    I was promoted to member services manager then vice president of customer service and administration. In 2003, I was selected for my current position as senior vice president and am responsible for the co-op's customer service, call center, finance, human resources, information technology, communications and marketing, and strategic accounts and business development activities.

    How did you get involved with NRECA International Foundation?

    ECE sponsored linemen to help build distribution lines in Pignon, Haiti, as part of the NRECA International Foundation project. We received reports of their work while they were there via e-mail and upon their return. I was so touched by the stories they told and the pictures of the people which clearly showed the excitement and happiness this work brought to this community. I talked to Mark Glaess, manager of Minnesota Rural Electric Association, and Ron Schwartau, board member of Nobles Cooperative Electric, who were both active in the program. I expressed that I couldn't build lines but I would be interested in helping people learn how to use electricity to expand economic possibilities, and cited sewing as an example. (My grandmother was a tailor. She taught me her skill from the time I was able to sit at the machine and thread a needle.)

    A year or so later, I was approached at the NRECA Annual Meeting and asked, "Are you still interested in going to Haiti to teach sewing?" I was thrilled to learn Pastor Caleb Lucien, the person who spearheaded the Pignon project, had received a grant for more than 50 new electric sewing machines and was looking for someone who could set them up and teach members of the community how to use them.

    Our CEO, Garry Bye, is extremely supportive of the International Project (as evidenced by his encouragement of my participation in the Haiti project and that of ECE line crew). He also initiated the donation of a bucket truck and a fuel transport vehicle to benefit the community of Pignon, so he gladly supports our activities.

    What did you do to prepare for your trip? Did you find that your preparations helped you while you were there?

    One of the first things I did to prepare for the trip was to schedule all of the necessary immunizations. Working with a clinic specializing in international travel, I was able to get not only the immunizations needed but helpful instruction for staying healthy in a developing country. I already had my passport in hand so didn't have to worry about the long waiting period some were experiencing during this time period.

    I learned that I would travel with a team of seven linemen from other Minnesota cooperatives and received the contact information for the lead lineman so I could coordinate arrangements with him. I was also able to communicate with Pastor Lucien with the help of Ingrid Hunsicker of the NRECA International Foundation to learn what supplies he had access to and which I should plan to bring. I purchased patterns, thread, extra sewing machine needles, bobbins, tape measures, pins, scissors and other supplies not readily available in Haiti. Caleb was able to purchase bolts of fabric in Haiti so I was relieved it was not necessary to transport this.

    NRECA International was also an excellent resource throughout my preparations. They answered a lot of my questions about what I should expect in Haiti.

    Did you learn or experience anything in Haiti that has enriched your life here? Or that has helped you in your job?

    My experience in Haiti was life-altering. Meeting the people and being a part of something that has the potential to enrich the quality of their lives was amazing. It is difficult to explain the fire this project lit within me.

    In the evenings, after teaching two four-hour classes each day, there was time to set up a make-shift nail salon to paint and decorate the fingernails of interested children. It was a fun way to connect with these beautiful youngsters even though I could not speak their language.

    My experience in Haiti prompted me to participate in a second mission project in 2008, which was to work with girls and women of the Maasai tribe in Tanzania as part of the IMAGE Project. In my 27 years with the co-op, one thing has become very clear. ECE came into being for the purpose of improving the quality of life for people in the rural countryside who didn't otherwise have access to central station electricity. Through the years, we have continued to be a catalyst for bringing new services to our members to further enhance their quality of life. Being a part of the NRECA International Foundation Project, and other projects like it, just seems like the right thing to do to expand on this legacy of helping people.

    The abundance we enjoy in our country, even in these questionable economic times, is so much more than in other parts of the world. I intend to continue the work started at ECE 73 years ago, when co-op founders began the quest to improve living conditions for their neighbors. The difference today is that our neighborhood has expanded to include the world.

    Would you recommend volunteer work with NRECA International Foundation to someone else? Why or why not?

    Absolutely! NRECA International Foundation is a great way to use your knowledge and skills to benefit others while widening your own horizons. I think one of the residual benefits for participants is a realization of how fortunate we are to have the tools and resources necessary to do our daily jobs safely and efficiently. We often fail to recognize this until faced with trying to complete a task without access to important resources which is a common struggle in most of the International Project communities.

    For those who can't see themselves participating directly on a project team, I would strongly encourage considering personal financial support. At ECE, employees are offered the opportunity to contribute to the NRECA International program through payroll deduction. This is an ongoing way that I have chosen to support the project.

  • Jerry Rodgers, Lane Electric Cooperative, Inc., Oregon

    Jerry Rodgers, Lane Electric Cooperative, Inc., Oregon (Retired)

    Jerry Rodgers, Lane Electric Cooperative, Inc., Oregon

    U.S. Co-op: Lane Electric Cooperative, Inc., Oregon (Retired)
    Profession:
    Line Foreman
    Volunteer in countries:
    Yei and Maridi South Sudan

    "I really felt that the rural electric industry had provided me with a great career and had helped me provide a good life for my family and I wanted to give something back to it. This seemed like a very good way to do just that."

    After volunteering in Yei, Sudan, in 2007, Jerry was very excited at the opportunity to volunteer in Sudan once more with NRECA International Foundation last fall. Working in Maridi this time, Jerry was assisting the local Sudanese line crew build a distribution system under the Market Town Electrification Project, which also focused on electrification in Kapoeta. Under the direction of NRECA International's Bob Dalton, Jerry and his fellow volunteers specifically focused on the construction of a substation for Maridi's electric distribution system.  Although the work was difficult, overall Jerry had a memorable experience and would be happy to volunteer for a third time, should the opportunity arise.  When asked a few questions about the trip, Jerry was eager to share his experience.

    Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

    I served my apprenticeship in Pennsylvania working for a private utility. I got laid off in 1974 and took a job with an REA in New Mexico. From there, I went to an REA in Colorado. I then got a job in Oregon with Lane Electric Coop where I worked for a little over 31 years and retired last year. I volunteered for NRECA in Yei, Sudan, in 2007.  I had very much wanted to volunteer again and when the chance to go to Maridi came up, I very much wanted to go.

    What made you want to volunteer with NRECA in Sudan?

    It may seem a little sappy, but I really felt that the rural electric industry had provided me with a great career and had helped me provide a good life for my family and I wanted to give something back to it. This seemed like a very good way to do just that. I also felt that an ordinary person going over there would help people see what Americans are really like.

    Once getting to Sudan, what was the biggest challenge?

    Having worked for a rural co-op for so long, it was much more hand work, what with the lack of equipment, but work I was familiar with as some of our work  was so remote that you could not always get equipment to it. My biggest challenge was the extreme remoteness of Southern Sudan and the difficulty of getting material there as needed. I think this was overcome by the how the people there stepped up to the job and did what was necessary to get the job done.

    Overall, how did everything go? Did you enjoy your time?

    For how difficult it was to get material and equipment there, I thought the job went surprisingly well.  I very much enjoyed my time there and it was very rewarding to me to feel that I had done something that was helpful to the project. I think the thing that left the most impression on me was the people I met there and how friendly they were. Their eagerness to learn and willingness to do whatever was necessary to get the job done was very impressive to me.

    Any last thoughts on the general experience? Would you volunteer again?

    I would very much like to volunteer for another project for NRECA as I feel they are doing a great service to the people where they go and it is a great experience for me personally.  I also enjoy traveling overseas and find it a way to experience the people and place where you go in a way that you never could otherwise. One of the things I did not expect and really liked was meeting the United Nations people and talking with them about both what they were doing there and what it was like in their homeland.

  • Jody Hand and Curt Baker, Coweta-Fayette EMC

    Jody Hand, Coweta-Fayette EMC

    Jody Hand

    U.S. Co-op: Coweta-Fayette EMC
    Profession:
    Linemen
    Volunteer in countries:
    Guatemala

    "I really wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to do something different. Our co-op has sent several groups at different times, and this time, I wanted to help out, to do whatever I could do to help people in need."

    Jody Hand and Curt Baker, veteran linemen at Georgia's Coweta-Fayette EMC, recently traveled to Guatemala to build power lines that connected a rural village to the national grid. Over a two-week period, they helped construct several miles of power lines, offering villagers access to something they never had before: safe, reliable electricity.

    Here, Hand and Baker talk a little about their experience in Guatemala.

    Why did you choose to travel to Guatemala with fellow linemen and the NRECA International Foundation?

    Hand: "I really wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to do something different. Our co-op has sent several groups at different times, and this time, I wanted to help out, to do whatever I could do to help people in need."

    Baker: "I went because it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help people. It was also a great opportunity to see another part of the world."

    How did you prepare for the trip? Did your preparations help once you got there?

    Hand: "As far as preparing, well, we packed a crate of tools and food to use when we got there, but it was held up in Customs. So we prepared, but because of circumstances out of our control, we didn't have what we needed once we got there. It was definitely an experience that made us appreciate what we had back home."

    Curt Baker

    Curt Baker

    Baker: "Jody's right. We really didn't have the material we were used to using. We were doing our work the same way they did 30, 40 years ago [using only manual tools]. It was tough, but we got by."

    What did you learn while you were in Guatemala?

    Baker: "I learned that we are very lucky to have the tools we have in the United States. When we were in Guatemala, we went back to doing things the way they did 30 or 40 years ago. It really helped me learn to respect the people who did my job before me — and especially the people who started our co-op so many years ago."

    Hand: "I learned that there's a whole other world out there. There's a whole different way of living. It really opened my eyes to just how much we have."

    Is there anything specific you'll remember about your trip?

    Hand: "The best memory for me was meeting the guys who aren't that far from here (linemen from other Georgia co-ops joined them on the trip) and improvising with them. Everyone was throwing in different ideas about how to do things. The people from Guatemala were great, too — they were always smiling."

    Baker: "I'll never forget learning how to climb a pole with a rope."

    Would you recommend the experience to other co-op professionals?

    Baker: "Absolutely. Anybody, anywhere needs to try something like this once. It would really give people a lot more respect for the way other people live. We have so much more than people in most of the world. The people we helped have so little compared to us; some of their houses didn't have doors or windows. They wash their clothes in the river. I came back truly grateful for what I have."

    Hand: "It's a great thing to help somebody, whether it's a next door neighbor or someone in a different country. I would absolutely recommend volunteering, or helping NRECA International send other people out to help."

  • Mark Brothers, Duck River EMC

    Mark Brothers, Duck River EMC

    Mark Brothers, Duck River EMC

    U.S. Co-op: Duck River Electric Membership Cooperative
    Profession:
    Lineman
    Volunteer in countries:
    Guatemala

    "They're kind of strapped for money down there. So I told them I can hook this up for you. It's not that big a deal. So that's what I went back to do."

    What made you decide to go back to Guastatoya after the January trip?

    They'd had this generation plant that had been offline for I don't know how long, the hydro plant. I looked around and I saw that they needed the thing online. They're kind of strapped for money down there. So I told them I can hook this up for you. It's not that big a deal. So that's what I went back to do.

    How did it go?

    Well, we achieved what we wanted to achieve. We got the generator working. But they're trying to synchronize it with the grid, and they're having some problems with that. I told them, "Why not just find out how much load you got, take it off the grid and generate it here?" But they didn't want to do that.

    I was a little discouraged. But you get a good feeling when you help people out, and I felt good that I went down there.

    How were the living conditions?

    I grew up in the country. Like the Beverly Hillbillies. I'd feel right at home with Jed and Granny. And I'll be right honest, that helped me in Guatemala, because it's like going back in time about 60 or 70 years from where we're at right now.

    But those people down there, they're really happy. They don't have the stresses that we have up here. It's just not there.

    How about the working conditions?

    It's real labor-intensive work that they do. They do everything by hand. They set poles by hand. They dig holes with shovels. That was interesting to see how they do that. So we ended up doing everything the hard way. But whenever you're in a situation like that, you always come up with a way to do it.

    And the men down there, they're good guys. They just need a little bit of basic lineman training.

    How did you feel getting on that plane the first time?

    I was sitting in Dallas in January in the airport, and I met the other volunteers from northern Illinois there. We were taxiing out to the runway, and I'm sitting there thinking, "Boy, Mark, what have you got yourself into now? Here you are, you're about to leave the United States, and you're going to a foreign country. You don't speak the language. You don't know what to expect." I wasn't really worried, but, you know, I was concerned. And what did you tell yourself to feel better about it? I told myself this is two weeks. You know, if it's bad, it's bad. But if it's two weeks, I can suffer two weeks.

    Looking back, were those anxieties valid?

    Nah. We had a good time. Everybody got along. I got along with the linemen down there. They kind of adopted us, and we kind of adopted them. I couldn't speak their language, but we made do. We had two or three that could speak a fair amount of English. We made it. We got by.

    So, if you had a chance to go back to Guatemala or somewhere else, would you take it?

    Yeah, I'd go.

    The people down there just need a little help. And I feel like I've always enjoyed going and seeing different things. I've been to Guatemala now, and I can talk with a degree of knowledge about how things are down there. It's an experience. Nobody can tell you what it's like to do something. You just got to go do it and see what it's like.

    If anybody asked you about volunteering overseas, what would you say to them?

    I'd tell them go. A lot of people are scared of the unknown. But you get by. You know, no matter what, you get by.

    I've told some guys up here who are thinking about volunteering, if you want to go, I'll go with you. I've even been thinking that I wouldn't mind, after I retire, going down there for two or three months and just helping those guys out.

  • Mel Coleman, North Arkansas Electric Co-op

    Mel Coleman

    Mel Coleman, North Arkansas Electric Co-op

    U.S. Co-op: North Arkansas Electric Co-op
    Profession:
    CEO
    Volunteer in countries:
    Guatemala

    "Once you go, you realize and remember it's about the people who don't have anything and who are so appreciative of our help and who are also working hard themselves to improve their lives; you put a name and a face to the story on paper."

    In August 2012, NRECA Vice President Curtis Nolan and Treasurer Mel Coleman traveled to Guatemala with International Foundation Program Manager Ingrid Hunsicker. Together they journeyed to Cuilco, Guatemala, to observe the "Hoosiers Power the World" project. Mel Coleman, also CEO of North Arkansas Electric Co-op in Salem, Ark., was excited by the opportunity to travel overseas, something that several of his linemen have done. While in Guatemala, Mel and his fellow travelers got to experience the rough conditions and terrain of rural Guatemala, lights coming on for the first time, and even to meet the president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina.

    To begin with, why did you want to go to Guatemala?

    I wanted to go to Guatemala for three reasons: First is that everybody that's in our program here has talked about the day "the lights came on," and most of us have never seen that and that was something I wanted to do; second, I wanted to go because it was giving assistance to those who need our help; and lastly, I wanted to witness firsthand what we went through here in the United States 75 years ago when the co-ops were getting started. Guatemalan Woman

    What had the most impact on you during the trip?

    The thing that had the most impact on me was actually just being around and staying with people who, compared to our standards, basically don't have anything, but they're very happy people. You look at our lifestyle here in the States and we get all caught up in "I don't have this, I don't have that…" but these people had their one-room home with wood cook-stoves and that was it. The necessities that we think of are really luxuries. They were very appreciative of what we were able to do for them. We were actually at one home when the light came on for the first time and it was just great to see that.

    Were there any major surprises or things you weren't expecting?

    I didn't get sick! To be serious, though, I didn't expect to see villages literally on the sides of multi thousand-foot mountains, mountains that I had a hard time just walking on. The terrain that the villagers dealt with so well just blew my mind. Some of the paths we took to get into the villages would scare most people to death! The road that we were on could hardly be called a one-lane road as it was barely wide enough even for that, but then on one side you'd have a two, three thousand-foot drop-off. Guatemalan Children

    What was it like meeting President Pérez?

    Amazing. It was a big surprise and such an honor. It was so incredible to meet with a head of state; just an incredible experience. We were with him in a small group for well over an hour, discussing projects in his country. I was touched by his friendliness and candor and just his overwhelming sense of concern for his people. Here in the United States, we're used to seeing the president with throngs of security and then when we met with President Pérez, there was security but not a lot. His office is just right there on a street in downtown Guatemala City. When you think about the security here versus in Guatemala, it was just night and day.

    Any other thoughts on the trip?

    I can't emphasize enough how important this program is to developing countries and how strongly I feel about the International Program. We talk, we make donations, we're concerned, but until you go over and experience what is happening and see the people it is helping, it's all just on paper. Once you go, you realize and remember it's about the people who don't have anything and who are so appreciative of our help and who are also working hard themselves to improve their lives; you put a name and a face to the story on paper.

  • Richard Lopez, Socorro Electric Cooperative

    Richard Lopez

    Richard Lopez

    U.S. Co-op: Socorro Electric Cooperative
    Profession:
    Engineering and Operations Manager
    Volunteer in countries:
    Haiti

    I come from a small town, and people ask me why do you go? And I sometimes wonder that myself. Something like this, you know, you hope to do good. If you can do some good, that's the reward. Beyond that, it's a reality check.

    Richard Lopez, engineering and operations manager for Socorro Electric Cooperative in New Mexico, has been on multiple volunteer trips for the NRECA International Foundation. His latest was a two-week stint as a restoration team advisor in earthquake-ravage Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

    You've been on several volunteer trips, but going into an earthquake zone was a new challenged for you. How did you prepare?

    Basically what Myk [Manon, NRECA Haiti project manager] told me was to bring my hardhat, gloves, boots, safety glasses and expect just about anything. So that's what I did.

    What kind of work did you end up doing while you were there?

    The scope of work included anything and everything, from working with the Dominican Republic line crew in a bucket truck to working with the Haitian crews to being an adviser and also to coordinating the energizing of these facilities.

    Basically, we would do line inspections and make notes for distribution line repair. We would re-inspect after it was repaired, and we would coordinate bringing the power back on. I was working directly with the distribution director. And he would disseminate the work to his crews. I think they had 16 crews and 107 employees, which is quite a few. I would report to Myk what we had done for the day at the end of the day, how many circuits we had energized, etc.

    What were the working conditions like?

    We had a good office. We had plenty of GPS units. They had computers. They had Internet. The conference room where everything was coordinated was fairly nice. And the office was a good office. Had electricity most of the time. Had air conditioning some of the time. And had water some of the time. So it was pretty good.

    What is your impression of the work of the NRECA team?

    They're doing fantastic work. I've worked with Myk on several occasions. He's great to work with. He keeps things going. Keeps things organized. He has a very broad sense of knowledge. I could ask him just about anything.

    Haitian girl dancing under a porch light after power was restored

    Haitian girl dancing under a porch light after power was restored

    Did the Haitian people seem to be appreciative?

    I'll tell you a story about that. We had just reenergized the last circuit that I was present for, and they had just finished trimming some trees to get the line off the trees, and they called for the power to come on. The power came on, and I heard this girl scream, and I look over, and she's singing and dancing in her patio. There was a light bulb in the patio, and she was singing and dancing underneath the light. She was really happy. She'd been out of power for 52 days.

    That's the picture I look at and say, that's what it's all about.

    The Haitians were just really pleasant. We'd be walking through residential areas, and they've been out of power for over 50 days, and you'd say "Bon jour," and they'd turn around and say "Bon jour."

    Speaking of which, how's your French-Creole?

    I did learn some at the hotel. There were some people that spoke a little bit of English and Spanish, so I could get by. You know, I could count to 10 in French. I could ask where the toilet was. I could ask for a cold beer. Just a lot of basics.

    The one French term that I did learn down there that was very well accepted by people was, "I'm just a simple man." They appreciate when you say something like that. And it's the way I am. I never think about somebody writing about what I'm doing. I'm not looking for the publicity. I'm sincere in my help or trying to help.

    Did you feel like you accomplished a lot and did some good?

    It started off pretty slow. We did some inventories. I got familiar with the substations and the circuits that they were trying to reenergize. When I got there, there was about 25 percent of the distribution system that had been energized partially, and I thought, well, if we can get to 50 percent, I would be happy.

    So I worked with their distribution director directly, and when I left, I looked back: We got the factory complex, the textile export back on power. We got some industrial load back on power, the ones that were still operable anyway. We got some large commercial back on power. We got some small commercial back on power. And we started to do some residential towards the end.

    When I left, we had partially energized 24 of the 33 circuits, or about 65 percent of what could be served.

    So yeah, I feel like we accomplished a lot. I participated in it. It wasn't me that did it. It was the actual Haitian crews.

    Lopez (right), Myk Manon (left) and Hípolito Nuñez, a member of the Dominican Republic team

    Lopez (right), Myk Manon (left) and Hípolito Nuñez, a member of the Dominican Republic team, pose near a power transformer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The 56-ton unit and another next to it have been restored to operation after being toppled by the January 12 earthquake.

    How were the Haitian crews to work with?

    About halfway through my stay, I'd been working with this group of people, the distribution director and a couple of assistants. We went to the bank one day, and I posed a question when we had a little free time to not think about work, and I said, "Did your house get damaged?" All four of them said, "Yeah. Gone." And so I asked the distribution director, I said, "Where are you sleeping?" He says, "In the woods." I said, 'Have you got a tent." He says, "No."

    At that point, it dawned on me, the realization of where I was at, that the people I was working with, I just took it for granted that they had homes. These are people that are working really hard to get the power back on, and they're going home and sleeping outside at night.

    And you know, I really take my hat off to the Dominican Republic crews too, because they were out there working real hard up until the point I got there. They worked on substations, brought in mobile generation. Their presence in their sister country was impressive.

    What motivates you to do overseas volunteer work?

    I come from a small town of about 13,000, and people ask me why do you go? And I sometimes wonder that myself. But, you know, we get a little comfortable here in the States. Something like this, you know, you hope to do good. If you can do some good, that's the reward. Beyond that, it's a reality check.

    Will you volunteer overseas again?

    Absolutely. If NRECA feels the need for someone with my abilities, I would love to go provide it. I think other U.S. linemen should really consider volunteering as well. It's a great way to do something lasting and good, and the Haitian crews in particular would really benefit from the kind training we can give them. I'd also really like to thank Socorro's board of trustees and our co-op manager for donating my time for the Haiti relief effort. They have been very supportive of volunteer work at our co-op, and they deserve credit for any of the good I was able to do in Haiti.

  • Travis Housley, Big Rivers Electric Corporation

    Travis Housley

    Travis Housley, Big Rivers Electric Corporation

    U.S. Co-op: Big Rivers Electric Corporation
    Profession:
    Vice President of Special Projects
    Volunteer in countries:
    Philippines

    "Any time a village gets electricity, there's a show of gratitude with a big celebration. The villagers realize a tremendous change in their lives."

    So, your first project in the Philippines didn't quite work out.

    I wasted about a year trying to develop that hydro project. Finally, I got a call from an engineer who was visiting the village, and he told me it just couldn't be done. But that kicked it off for me.

    How did you get involved with the NRECA International Foundation?

    It was after I had worked on the hydro project for some while that I was directed to NRECA's International Program. Our CEO heard what I was doing and said that I should check out the Foundation. That was my first contact. I went to Washington and met with the folks there. They gave me some good direction. At the time, they were promoting the sister co-op program, so Big Rivers entered into a sister co-op relationship with DASURECO [Davao del Sur Electric Cooperative].

    The goal was to energize a single village. We eventually did, and at that time, I considered us finished. But the co-op manager convinced me that there was more work to do. Since then, we've made 50 shipments with quite a bit of equipment. And the program has developed considerably, evolved considerably over the years into what it is today. We've also expanded our programs to two additional Philippine co-ops, DANECO and DORECO.

    How have things in the region changed since 1998?

    I don't see a lot of change, because each time I visit, we visit a new area, an area that's not been energized. Of course, when I do visit an area that has been energized, you see all kinds of progress, radios and TVs. To me, these are just noise-makers. But to them, this is a contact for these people to the outside world. It's a quantum leap.

    Any mistakes or missteps along the way?

    Oh, I've made plenty of mistakes. Like when we first started funding livelihood projects, somebody would say they wanted a loan, they'd tell us how much they needed, and if their business plan sounded good, we'd hand the money to them. Didn't take long for us to figure out that that wasn't the way to go.

    But we've learned as we've gone along.

    Looking back now, what's been the most rewarding aspect of your work?

    The areas we're working in are very poverty stricken. As far as gratification, in some of the poorer areas, there's just such a tremendous appreciation for the kind of help that in the United States would almost be ignored because it would seem so small.

    Any time a village gets electricity, there's a show of gratitude with a big celebration. The villagers realize a tremendous change in their lives.

    I guess it's the ability, with such little effort, to change the lives of people. It's almost a shame not to do it.

    What do you think the future holds for these villages?

    To me, the big potential benefactors of electricity in some of these rural areas are the children. Mindanao [the southern Philippines island where Housley has focused his efforts] is the country's main agricultural region. By introducing electricity and then computers into the schools, we give kids the opportunity to avail themselves of some of the more modern agricultural techniques. Education for the next generation is one big input that gives me encouragement.

    Would you say NRECA International Foundation has been instrumental in the Philippines Project successes?

    It definitely has. I'd never been out of the Southeast United States when I went on my first trip. The Foundation has always given me information on things that had been tried in other areas and things to watch out for. Every time I thought I was inventing something new, I'd come to the Foundation and they'd say, "Well, we've tried that a few times here or there."

    The Foundation's assistance with ocean freight has been a tremendous help in getting donated equipment over to the Philippines.

    There's also Gil Medina, my Filipino co-worker in the Philippines. He has served as the Foundation's in-country representative for a number of years on many projects. Gil's worked for the NEA [National Electrification Administration] and served as general manager of a co-op and president of the Philippines equivalent of NRECA. His in-depth familiarity with the Philippine electric co-op systems has contributed tremendously to the Philippine Project's success.

    And then of course there's Ingrid Hunsicker and the staff there being the hub for donations and whatnot from around the country. That's been a necessity.

    I'm very grateful for the service they're providing. They've been extraordinarily helpful.

    You're 66 now. How long do you think you'll keep going with these projects?

    I'm getting to the point that these river-swimming expeditions are getting a little more difficult. My retirement will eventually come. But the Big Rivers board has committed to supporting me with finances even after I retire. They, along with our member systems, have taken a real interest in this effort and have been tremendous supporters over the years. I guess we'll just wait and see how long I last.