Energy Trails: a Mission of Light
Electric Cooperatives of Oklahoma electrify remote village in Guatemala
Laura Modesta Cuz was one of the children in the village of Chiis, Guatemala, who stole the hearts of the volunteer linemen from Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives. Photo by Anna Politano
In October 2017, Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives sent 13 volunteers to electrify the remote village of Chiis in rural Guatemala.
65 homes received first-time electricity, forever changing the future of the community of Chiis.
It’s a rainy and gloomy morning. Dirt roads in the village of Chiis are wet, muddy and slippery. The ground is soaked with constant rainfall; abundant vegetation is lush and dense. Villagers walk—some run—to a community center building. Elders, men, women, and children are headed in the same direction: to enter the white, concrete structure where the community typically gathers. As dreary as it is outside, it’s a whole different picture inside this gathering point. The building is filled with music, laughter and warm hugs. Fireworks can be heard in the background.
The tall men in green shirts are volunteer linemen, electricians and engineers from several of Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives. They are surrounded by chil.dren. In the midst of hugs, tears begin to flow. At this moment, both co-op volunteers and children realize these are the last few minutes of their three-week journey together. The volunteers came to Chiis, Guatemala, to bring lights to a village that had never had electric power. This morning, the lights have been turned on in 65 homes. From this day forward, residents of Chiis will enjoy the benefits of electricity. What the co-op volunteers did not expect, however, was the strong bond they would form with the children. As they hug the little ones goodbye, it becomes impossible to hold back tears. Today, they leave the gift of electricity behind, but they carry in their hearts the gift of friendship for a lifetime.
Photo by Ingrid Hunsicker
Power to Chiis
Through a partnership with NRECA International, the philanthropic arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives sent 13 volunteers to electrify a poverty-stricken village in north.western Guatemala. The village of Chiis is located in the state (department) of Alta Verapaz on top of a mountain. At an altitude of 2,700 feet, Chiis is a small community that relies mostly on coffee, spices and corn for self-consumption. Most villagers speak a Mayan-based dialect, Kekchi.
Oklahoma’s electric cooperative volunteers built 3 miles of power lines. They lines will be maintained by a small utility company called ADECORK (Associacion Para Desarollo Communitario Rax Kiche). Translation: Association for Community Development Rax Kiche. ADECORK will carry the responsibility of generation, transmission and distribution of electric power to Chiis. The utility operates a small hydroelectric plant with a capacity of 75 kilowatts (kW). The project, funded by the Electric Cooperatives of Oklahoma and partnering organizations, takes co-ops back to their roots of rural electrification.
“It has not been that many years since pioneers electrified rural America in the 1930s and 1940s. It is important that we keep this memory alive,” Chris Meyers, general manager of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives (OAEC), said. “We are uniquely situated to help with this type of giving. It’s crucial that we share the many blessings we have by providing this vital service to those who would not otherwise have it.”
Jimmy Taylor, Northfork Electric Cooperative board president and OAEC International Committee chairman, expressed to Chiis residents during a lighting ceremony that the future of the children in the village would be impacted by their access to electricity.
“This is a great day for the adults in the village, but an even greater day for the children here today and the ones who will be born in the next five to 10 years,” Taylor said. “I understand this because that child was me 64 years ago. Electricity came to my parents’ ranch two years before I was born, and it changed my future.”
The electrification project, dubbed “Energy Trails,” came after a successful partnership with Missouri’s electric cooperatives in 2016 in which volunteers electrified two villages in the Amazonian area of Bolivia. Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives established a 501(c)3 not-for-profit, the Oklahoma Energy Trails Foundation, to support international electrification projects.
Photo by Brian de Leon
A Challenging & Fulfilling Journey
Leading the Energy Trails team was Damon Lester with Indian Electric Cooperative based in Cleveland, Oklahoma. Lester shared that the team experienced various challenges while completing the project. In a span of 3 miles of line, the volunteers strung wire on more than 50 poles, installed 49 anchors, hung transform.ers and wired 65 homes to receive first-time electricity. According to Lester, some of the challenges were difficult terrain that required physical endur.ance from the linemen as well as good communication skills as the volunteers had to spread out throughout the service area to accomplish the work.
“We had a few hand-held radios, but they would stop working over short distances. We had huge obstacles to get from one place to the other in a timely manner since many areas were not drivable,” Lester said. “It took a lot of trust in each other.”
The team of volunteers were em.powered by help from local residents, especially young men. At first, Lester said the villagers were curious observ.ers. After a couple of days, they began to help by pulling off wire, drag.ging heavy tool bags and doing whatever was needed. One older man gave up half of his house to serve as a warehouse for the team’s tools and supplies. Not only the adults assisted; the children in the village were loyal helpers and even better friends.
“Every morning when we showed up, the village came alive. The kids would run to the trucks with excitement and would call us by name,” Lester said. “The more I felt their excitement, the more pressure I felt to ensure we succeeded. It became more real. It was a great sense of respon.sibility for me and the guys.”
The 13 volunteers who served on the project had not worked side-by-side before; still, they developed a brotherhood during the experience and formed lifelong friendships.
“It requires a submissive, yet driven attitude to do what it takes for a successful and safe job. Everyone who was on this team was here for the right reasons,” Lester said. “Linemen are typically more reserved, but a trip like this is the perfect environment to let your guard down. We work from the heart, not from ego. Everything we do is selfless.”
In linemen circles, working in the aftermath of a major storm to restore outages causes stronger bonds among crew members. International proj.ects like this bring about a similar experience.
“Sometimes a good storm can bring greater morale when everyone lets go of their personal agendas,” Lester said.
The experience was unique for Lester who had to step aside from the day-to-day job functions to serve as an over.seer. His responsibility was to empower team members to do the job while he looked ahead to the next steps to ensure completion of the project.
“It was hard for me to not jump in to everything and be a physically moving part of the machine that made the wheels turn,” Lester said. “I was strug.gling, but the team was very supportive. To still be able to be a productive member of team by stepping aside and let.ting others do what they do best was a lesson for me.”
Photo by Anna Politano
Let There Be Light
On October 25, the lights came on in the village of Chiis for the first time. The volun.teers met at the village’s com.munity center building for a celebration. It was a joyful oc.casion. The families in the vil.lage prepared a meal for the team. For the linemen, it was a bittersweet moment. They felt fulfilled by having the job done, but their hearts were heavy as they said goodbye to dear friends.
“It was a huge relief on Inauguration Day to know we completed the project, and there was a lot of anxiety for all the goodbyes,” Lester said. “Overall, we had a tremendous feeling of satisfaction that every family had power.”
The happiness of the people of Chiis, even though they live in extreme poverty, made a lasting impression on the team, and on the Inauguration Trip delegates who traveled to witness the turning on of the lights.
Colin Whitley, CEO of Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative based in Seminole, Oklahoma, was part of the Inauguration Trip team and felt humbled by observing the people of Chiis.
“This trip made me think of all the advantages we have at home and the things we take for granted, like electricity,” Whitley said. “I was impressed by how happy the people can be living with the little they have; it makes me think that sometimes we are missing out on something at home.”
During the Inauguration ceremony, Lester concluded the festivities with these words: “It’s been a true gift to be able to come here and pro.vide a gift to this community. The experiences we have had we will cherish forever; we will always remember the community of Chiis and the people and children who stole our hearts.”
The Energy Trails volunteer team safely returned home on October 28, 2017. For more information on the project, visit: https://energytrails.wordpress.com