By Magen Howard | RE Magazine
Sandra “Sandy” Stockwell might have retired on April 1, but that isn’t stopping her from going on one last Youth Tour this month―her 25th.
Technically, it’s her 27th trip with the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives (statewide), but she didn’t become the state program coordinator until 1989. With her successor due to have a baby right around the time of the 2014 Youth Tour, Stockwell agreed to stay on as a consultant through the end of the year.
“I’ve loved this trip. Every year I enjoy it; I’m just getting to the age when someone else younger needs to take care of it,” she says.
Anyone who’s looked after a group of 16- and 17-year-olds in Washington, D.C., for Youth Tour―which turns 50 this year―knows how challenging and physically exhausting it is, not to mention how hot and humid the nation’s capital can be in the middle of June.
But there’s a reason the program has not just endured but thrived for half a century―and why people like Stockwell stick with it year after year: the students.
“It’s been a pleasure to be able to work with the kids every year,” she said. “They’re just so special. I’ve grown to love them.”
Youth Tour brings together some 1,600 teens from 43 states.
They dance on a boat cruise down the Potomac and see the roots of American history. They learn about electric co-ops and grassroots political advocacy. They live in awfully close quarters for up to a weekand are given a small taste of freedom and independence. They sleep a little and talk a lot.
These students become college roommates and even spouses, professional colleagues, and lifelong friends. For some, it’s a fun trip that later brings fond memories. To others, Youth Tour inspires kids to discover the adults they’re going to be.
For those accepted into the Youth Leadership Council (YLC), the experience is even richer. These students, one representative from each participating state, work the congressional action center at the NRECA Annual Meeting―attendees know them as the “Red Shirts”―and participate in a special meeting one month after the Youth Tour to delve more deeply into leadership and cooperative grassroots issues.
Much has changed over the past 50 years, and smartphones and social media have ushered in yet another era of change. But one constant has been the students, who never fail to be amazed, inspired, humbled, and grateful, according to the faithful electric co-op employees who bring new groups back to Washington every year.
For the chaperones and state coordinators, Youth Tour is an enormous amount of work culminating in just a handful of frantic days each year. Flexibility and being able to roll with the punches are must-haves. But it’s a labor of love for most.
“You’re susceptible to any change that might happen―deal with any problems that come up, no matter what, for the safety of the children,” Stockwell says. “We know that might happen. You have to be ready to take on responsibility for these children. They’re our babies. They call me ‘Momma Sandy.’ Most of these kids are my grandkids’ age, but ever since I’ve been doing this, they call me Momma Sandy.”
There’s another Youth Tour momma in Oklahoma who goes by “Spike Momma” during the trip but is Jennifer Dempsey the other 51 weeks of the year. Dempsey’s spiky red hair and earnest commitment to “her kids” earned her the affectionate moniker.
“Youth Tour directors are a strange bunch. We really are,” Dempsey says. “It is an unbelievable amount of work. But it’s the most rewarding thing I can imagine doing.”
“Rewarding” is a common refrain from those involved in the program, from administrators and coordinators to parents and participants―even the bus drivers who stick with one state year after year, as the Oklahoma drivers do.
“I’ve had parents come up to me after the program and say, ‘I don’t know what you did, but you brought back a different kid than you took.’ And for parents to say that, that’s something,” Dempsey says.
Rooted in politics
Youth Tour was born from a speech at the 1957 NRECA Annual Meeting by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ was a longtime advocate of electric co-ops, having lobbied for the creation of Pedernales Electric Cooperative in 1937 as a young politician in Texas. “If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents,” the future president said.
With that encouragement, Texas electric co-ops began sending summer interns to work in the senator’s Washington, D.C., office. In 1958, an electric co-op in Iowa sponsored the first group of 34 young people on a weeklong study tour of the nation’s capital. Later that same year, another came to Washington from Illinois. The idea grew, and other states sent students throughout the summer. By 1959, the Youth Tour had grown to 130 participants.
In 1964, NRECA began to coordinate joint activities among the state delegations and suggested that co-op representatives from each state arrange to be in Washington, D.C., during Youth Tour week. The first year of the coordinated tour included about 400 teens from 12 states.
As word spread, the program grew―and grew and grew―until no hotel was large enough to house all of its participants. When Stockwell began working at the Louisiana statewide in the late 1980s, Youth Tour had been split into two weeks.
Half the states came one week, the other half the next.
Karen Bailey, NRECA’s longtime Youth Tour coordinator, said it was a relief when the Hyatt in Crystal City, Va., was built in the late 1990s. Most states’ participants stay there, and some bunk down the street at the Hilton.
“Now, we have 500 rooms at the Hyatt, 200 at the Hilton, and it works out perfectly,” she says.
The prospect of contracting 700 hotel rooms years in advance doesn’t seem to faze Bailey, who has worked on the Youth Tour program for 25 years and has been the main coordinator for the past 15. Since 1999, she’s seen the number of participating states rise from 32 to 43 and the number of students from around a thousand to surpassing 1,600 in the past year.
“Even through economic changes in the past few years, Youth Tour numbers never went down,” Bailey says. “Many states bring at least two or three more kids. Our numbers always went up.”
In fact, the Hyatt’s ballroom, where Youth Day is held each year, is bursting at the seams. Already, chaperones are left to stand or watch the presentation in an overflow room―only students get a place to sit.
“This year, we’ll probably be over 1,600,” Bailey says. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
But it’s a good challenge to have. Youth Day, generally on the Monday of Youth Tour, is when all the state contingents converge to learn about grassroots politics and hear motivational, inspirational speakers. The students share their state pins, often vying to get the most pins or those that are rare, like from Hawaii’s small group.
“Youth Day is sort of our general session,” Bailey says. “And all the energy that comes with them is amazing to see. It’s like I’m seeing it for the first time every year.”
For the past decade, they’ve heard the inspiring story of Paralympian Mike Schlappi, a star athlete who was paralyzed as a teen. State coordinators like Stockwell lobby for Schlappi to return year after year because, they say, the students never fail to take his story to heart.
Schlappi says he makes the Youth Tour presentation one of his priorities because, first and foremost, he loves the kids, and he was their age when his whole life changed from an accidental gunshot.
“They’re so young and trying to figure out their lives. They’ve heard enough speakers and read enough books, sometimes they’ll roll their eyes,” Schlappi says. “But they’re away from parents and excited about their future and maybe got their eyes on the cute kid across the room. They’re willing to make positive changes. Back home, they get labels, and they have to live up to that. [At Youth Tour], they can make new impressions to new friends.”
On Youth Day, Schlappi walks the students through his whole story, from being on top of the world to the very bottom and back up again.
“I don’t lecture anybody―I just open my heart. I think I cause them to think and feel and realize life is good. If I can do that, I’m happy,” he says. “I think my story fits naturally with what they’re doing there, learning about the history of our country. I represented our country in the Olympics. I tell them I lost the freedom to walk but not the freedom to dream.”
Schlappi’s journey is detailed on his website, mikeschlappi.com, and he reinforces his positive messages via his Facebook page. He’s now a motivational speaker full time and speaks at other electric co-op events as well. Schlappi has five children with his wife, Tami, and once brought the whole family to Youth Day from Salt Lake City.
“They loved it,” he says.
Generations of Youth Tour
Youth Tour often is a family affair. Siblings routinely pass through the same electric co-ops, but as the program ages, generations are beginning to pass through too. Stockwell had a participant last year whose father had gone with Louisiana. Dempsey from Oklahoma recently had a participant whose grandfather had gone on the state’s first coordinated trip in 1964.
Five of the 1964 alumni attended the 50th Youth Tour reunion Dempsey coordinated last year in celebration of the 50 trips Oklahoma had taken. Thanks to stellar recordkeeping, the statewide office had a list of every person to have gone on Oklahoma’s Youth Tour. She sent each member co-op its list and asked them to find their participants. They published the lists in their member newsletters and linked to the Facebook group Dempsey had created. She picked a Saturday in July and created a short agenda that included plenty of time for socializing and catching up with old friends.
“We just had the best day,” Dempsey says. “We even flew out Joe and Rodney, the bus drivers we have every year.”
All in all, about 330 people registered for the reunion, but the Facebook group has more than 700 members. Dempsey is also keeping tabs on the next generation of Youth Tour participants.
“I’ve had kids go on to get married who met on Youth Tour. One couple, in 2001, got married after college, and they just had their second baby,” Dempsey says. The family just happened to be at the airport the same day Dempsey’s Youth Tour group was departing for Washington. They found Dempsey and talked to the students.
“One of the kids said, ‘That baby owes his life to Youth Tour,’” Dempsey says.
The next 50 years
While the next generation is being born, the current one is continuing the Youth Tour legacy of dreaming big and achieving bigger. Alexandria Witt was so influenced by her Youth Tour and YLC experiences in 2009 that when the time came for summer internships in college, she ended up at NRECA―three times.
“During my internship hunt, I had two criteria: I wanted to contribute to a mission I believed was valuable, and I wanted to immerse myself in a work environment that would encourage me to grow professionally,” says Witt, who was sponsored by Crawford Electric Cooperative based in Bourbon, Mo. “NRECA offered the perfect balance of both an admirable purpose and positive stimulation.”
Her first summer was spent in the public relations division and her second with the employee benefits communications team. After her 2013 graduation from Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., with a bachelor’s degree in political science and communication, Witt was offered a unique opportunity by NRECA CEO Jo Ann Emerson, who also hails from Missouri: to work as a summer project assistant in the office of the CEO and the government relations department.
“I remember feeling a huge sense of relief for finally being able to answer the dreaded question, ‘What are you doing after graduation?’” Witt says. “So many of my friends were unsure about their future plans, but I was ‘going home’ to people I knew and loved working with. I would probably still be at NRECA if I hadn’t been accepted to graduate school in London.”
That’s the London School of Economics & Political Science, where she’s studying for a master’s degree in politics and communication. Across time, and now an ocean, Witt says she and her friends from Youth Tour still make an effort to keep in touch and visit. That’s just one reason she developed such a loyalty toward the program, loyalty that led her to help with Youth Tour and YLC activities during each of her internships.
“Youth Tour was a real example of the power of grassroots activism,” Witt says. “As I enter my professional career, I am constantly reminded of the importance of member empowerment, and I have Youth Tour and cooperatives to thank for teaching me that.”
‘Are we there yet?’
While Witt is poised to enter the working world, Olivia Velasquez is preparing to make her mark. Sponsored by Hancock-Wood Electric Cooperative in North Baltimore, Ohio, she was the 2014 spokesperson for the YLC, which means she spoke during a general session of the 2014 NRECA Annual Meeting in Nashville in March.
Youth Tour and YLC, she says, have opened her mind to all the possibilities that await her.
“I’ve always thought of myself as kind of outgoing, but I never realized how you can be different kinds of a leader, like what we did for Catie with the T-shirts,” Velasquez says, referencing a fundraising project for a former YLC-er whose father suddenly passed away. YLC students purchased T-shirts this year, and some even sold them locally to their sponsoring co-ops, and the money went to help Catie and her brother go to college.
“It’s inspiring, and it made me aspire to something bigger,” she says. “I never thought I’d go to Washington, D.C., but I can now see myself maybe working for NRECA or any big job. I feel like I have more opportunity now.”
For now, Velasquez is keeping her options open as she heads into her final year at Pandora-Gilboa High School in Pandora, Ohio. She’s thinking about biology and public speaking―a talent that’s evident after speaking to thousands of people at the NRECA Annual Meeting, an experience she says was intimidating.
“I’ve never spoken in front of that many people before. It was really nice having the [co-op] board there for support, and having the YLC too. Having them cheer me on made me really feel like I was speaking for them, and I was, so that was really cool,” she says.
Her speech was titled “Are We There Yet?” and explored life as a continuous journey.
“Youth Tour showed me that we will never finally be ‘there,’” she told the audience. “Instead, we must continually ask ourselves questions, listen to others, and make adjustments in the directions to get us all ‘there’ together. But in the end, progress is our destination.”
Like Witt, Velasquez says she expects to have lifelong friends thanks to Youth Tour and YLC. And what makes the program so special and enduring is the investment in the students who participate.
“There are a lot of trips you can take, and they favor people with money,” she says. “They don’t focus on the kids.” Youth Tour is on the opposite end of that spectrum, and not just because the trip is free.
“Everyone who’s helped out with us, whether in the state or nationally, they’re all very passionate about it, and they realize if they invest their time in the children, the children will invest their time in it themselves later,” Velasquez says.
That’s something unique about electric co-ops in general.
“The co-op isn’t saying, ‘Hey, we want to make money from you, so buy some electricity,’” Velasquez said. “They’re saying, ‘I want you to go as far as you can in your life, and I really do care about you.’”