by John Lowrey
Young school girls in Pignon, Haiti, have a chance at a better life because electric co-ops like Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative are helping start an electric cooperatives in their village.
You’ve probably been in the dark before. A storm rolls through, the lights go out. You sit in the dark and wonder — “Now what am I going to do?”
We take electricity for granted. Even during a storm you’ve probably walked in to a dark room and tried to flip on a light switch. It’s just a habit, a reflex action. Electricity is just always there.
In many parts of the world electricity is still a dream. Light comes from a fire, a candle or a lantern. At best, people live with constant power outages and brownouts. Electricity is maybe on for a few hours a day.
Without electricity, people live a century behind the rest of the world. Poverty, disease and illiteracy thrive. With electricity lives change. Hopes and dreams become reality.
The REA Lesson
More than 70 years ago electric co-ops and their members built electric systems across our country with the help of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Today, co-ops and their employees are bringing the co-op model of rural electrification to the poorest corners of our world and helping generate light and hope.
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) International Program started in November 1962 when NRECA and the newly-established U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) signed an inaugural cooperative agreement in the White House Oval Office in a ceremony witnessed by President John F. Kennedy.
The idea was U.S. co-ops could share low-cost rural electrification lessons they learned with developing countries around the world. Since then the NRECA International program has developed and implemented rural electrification programs in more than 40 countries with funding support from USAID, as well the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other bilateral and multilateral international organizations.
Teach Them to Fish
A lot of aid programs simply solve problems of hunger and disease temporarily. The electric co-ops are providing a self-help aid program that will have life-changing long-term benefits.
In many rural Afghanistan villages a kerosene lamp is still the only source of light. The NRECA International Program is helping change that in the Helmand Province, and in rural villages like it around the world.
Ingrid Hunsicker, Communications Manager for NRECA International, says, “Right now we are seeing a food crisis throughout the world, and there are so many other problems in the world like health care. We could just ship help to them right now. They are hungry. But it goes back to the same teachings of Jesus. We need to teach them how to fish, not just give them fish. If you give the tools and knowledge to fish they can feed themselves for life. It is the same thing with electricity.”
Rural electrification is like planting a seed that can produce economic development in the poorest of countries. It can spark solutions to health care, hunger and education.
Hunsicker says, “Our mission is electrifying the world one village at a time.”
Electricity is one of the basic infrastructures that totally changed rural America 70 years ago. In the poorest countries of the world it can do the same thing. “Without it they are not going to lift themselves up and become part of the modern world and partners with us instead of dependent on us,” says Hunsicker. “It is also something you do because it is the right thing to do, and it makes you feel good that you’re helping someone else.”
Much of the financial aid is in the form of donated, used equipment from co-ops. The program is really more about volunteers than money, she says.
Hunsicker says Illinois co-ops have sent used material, donations and volunteers. “Recently it has been more volunteers and monetary contributions.”
The recent Illinois volunteers include Tim Hemberger a lineman from Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative (RECC), Pat Boyle a lineman from Adams Electric Cooperative, Lou DeLaby an engineer from Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative, Bruce Giffin the Manager for Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, and John Freitag and Paul Dow from the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC).
Electrifying the Poorest Countries
As a father Adams Electric Cooperative Line Foreman Pat Boylen was really touched by the children he met. Along with Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative Journeyman Lineman Tim Hemberger, Boylen left several boxes of school supplies and the hope for a better future for the children of the Dominican Republic.
Giffin went last year to Haiti, and he is going again this month. Haiti is one of, if not the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Giffin says being in Haiti, the Sudan, India or the Dominican Republic, just a few of the countries where co-op employees have volunteered, can give you a better appreciation of how much we have here. He says it is shocking how little so many people have, things we take for granted like refrigeration for food.
The Illinois co-op manager is providing training for the board of directors of Cooperative Electrique de Pignon, the first electric co-op in Haiti. The new co-op was entirely funded by donations of money, material and volunteer labor from the U.S. cooperative community. Now the co-op in Pignon is serving 350 homes and businesses, plus a hospital and several schools. New businesses are springing up, activity is flourishing at night, and expensive, noisy and polluting private generators are no longer needed.
Giffin is training the Haitian co-op directors about cooperative principles, board duties and responsibilities, system procedures and policies, financial forecasting, sustainability issues and safety. But he says volunteering also gives him the opportunity to practice what co-ops preach — cooperation among cooperatives.
Giffin says, “One of the cooperative principles is that co-ops work together, and principles aren’t much at all if nobody lives them. In a very small, but real way, we’re creating a favorable impression of the U.S., and that’s much needed, especially today. As we teach cooperative practices and principles to others, we learn them better ourselves. A number of our employees have volunteered in the International Program, and I think it helps us do a better job here, a more appreciative one certainly.”
People to People Diplomacy
John Freitag, Vice President of Operations for the AIEC, agrees with Giffin, that this is a good outreach program to other countries. “I just think it is healthy socially for U.S. businesses to spread good will internationally so it is not just another government program. If there was more of that in the world, where people that have are helping the have nots, there would be less terrorism and other global problems. We know this is a good self-help program.”
In Yei, Sudan, newly trained linemen raise poles the old fashioned way. The people of Yei, who have seen more than their share of war, now feel safe at night with streetlights. Children gather in the town’s Freedom Square to read or play soccer at night.
Freitag went with Lou DeLaby, Manager of Operations and Maintenance for RECC to help the first electric cooperative in the Dominican Republic. Cooperativa Electrica Fronteriza is located just east of the Haitian border, and will eventually serve 25,000 co-op members in a large rural area of the country.
Freitag says, “Lou and I went down to pave the way and get acquainted. While we were there, Lou tested some substation transformers for them.”
Freitag says volunteering is the right thing to do. “It also widens the horizons of the employees who volunteer. I know if you asked any of them they would say they are better for having gone.”
There are language barriers to overcome, but Freitag says the Dominican people are very friendly. He adds that you have to understand the cultural differences, too. “Things just run at a slower speed there and there are differences in the way we do things.”
While the people are friendly, Freitag says, it was strange seeing guns and security guards everywhere. “We are not used to seeing guards with AK-47s or sawed-off shotguns at the store. There, it is normal. Despite all that, I never felt like we were in any danger at any time while we were there, even in the very remote areas.”
Freitag says anyone can donate to the program, and it is tax deductible. “I donated an old van, just an old minivan that really didn’t have a lot of value,” he says. Some of the donated vehicles are shipped overseas, others are auctioned off here and the proceeds help fund projects.
Anyone can donate to the program and Freitag says you can find out more about making donations by going to www.nrecainternational.coop or by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Making New Friends
There is a tradition among linemen who volunteer for the program that they leave their tools behind with their new linemen friends.
Pat Boylen, Line Foreman for Adams Electric Cooperative, left his tools with his new Dominican Republic linemen friends. He says, “The smiles on their faces when they saw that we were going to leave our tools with them was immeasurable.”
Tim Hemberger, Journeyman Lineman for RECC, says, “My belt is over 20 years old. My hooks are well over 15 years old. Of course those guys wore them when we trained them to climb and they thought we had the best tools. I left my hooks and all my tools with one of the guys. It about brought tears to his eyes. He was very grateful.”
Both Boylen and Hemberger gave more than just their time and tools. The best part of the trip was a visit to a local school. Hemberger says, “We sent down 13 pretty good size boxes of pencils, erasers, crayons, notebooks, clothes, baseballs, tennis balls and all kinds of kid stuff they could use in school. It was overwhelming to see their response. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife. I knew it would help these kids tremendously and that was the highlight of my trip.”
Healing the War Torn
Paul Dow, Coordinator of Video Productions for the AIEC helped document one of the latest NRECA International Program projects so other co-op employees across the country could learn more about the volunteer program.
When Dow stepped off the plane and the dust settled in Yei (pronounced “yay”) Southern Sudan, Africa, it was like stepping back in time 200 years. The Sudan is the 10th largest country in the world and one of the poorest. For the past five years the Southern Sudan has operated autonomously from the central government and been relatively stable after enduring 20 years of civil war that destroyed the existing infrastructure. War, famine and genocide continue in west-central Sudan’s province of Darfur.
Electric infrastructure is being built in Yei by co-op linemen from across the U.S. Now Yei is beginning to jump forward 200 years and entering the modern world. A new medical center, school, church and radio station are now in place. Probably one of the most visible signs of change are the 130 streetlights that now brighten the streets, making them safe enough for children to play and study at night.
Yei has grown from 30,000 residents to 180,000 because of the improved safety and economic opportunity electricity provides.
Dow says, “In Yei you are constantly reminded that it was a war zone fairly recently. You see military everywhere, although they are not fighting now. There is a mixture of cultures, a lot of Arabic people as well as a lot of Christians. The people are really nice, although you sometimes get strange looks.”
Dow says for the linemen he interviewed it is a valuable learning experience that really goes both ways. “The American linemen are able to learn things from the workers there that don’t have the tools that our guys are used to having. They also get that good feeling seeing what a difference they are making in the lives of those who, without electricity, wouldn’t have a chance.
With electricity, the people of Yei have been very creative in finding small niche businesses, says Dow. “Now they can make a little money and a better life for their families.”
Being in another part of the world, the third world, is a real eye-opener, says Dow. “I think it is a good grounding experience for all of us to see how these people can be so happy with so little. It makes you reexamine things in your life and realize we really don’t have it too bad.”
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