Lighting the Way for Sillab
Oklahoma’s electric co-ops help bring first-time electricity to remote village
The lights came on for the first time in the mountainous village of Sillab, Guatemala. Photos by Studio1441.com
A heartfelt prayer. Stunning scenery. A moving celebration. On a sunny Friday afternoon, the mountainous village of Sillab was in celebration mode. Villagers gathered at the local school to express their gratitude for a much-anticipated gift, a gift that would empower their lives for generations to come: electricity. Co-op linemen from Oklahoma and Colorado showed up for the occasion with big smiles wearing maroon-colored polo shirts with the Energy Trails emblem, which signifies the name of their mission. In the midst of so much joy, however, the moment was bittersweet. This was their farewell. They knew in a few hours they would be saying good-bye to their new friends in Sillab, a people the linemen call “beautiful, happy and hardworking.” The Shepherd of the village asked to pray over the linemen much in the same way he prayed over the team when they first began their work in Sillab. What followed was not only a heartfelt prayer from the Shepherd, but a concert of prayers as villagers lifted their voices to pray simultaneously over the team.
“It was nothing short of amazing. It was bone chilling,” says Nate Hulse, a journeyman lineman with Oklahoma Electric Cooperative and Energy Trails volunteer.
Hulse was asked to pray over the villagers, which he says was “an amazing honor.” That afternoon, there were many hugs, expressions of gratitude, smiles and—yes—tears. Call it a demonstration of love. Call it a demonstration of friendship. These are life-changing memories that marked 20 linemen from Oklahoma’s and Colorado’s electric cooperatives.
The Path of Energy Trails
Volunteer co-op linemen from Oklahoma and Colorado landed in Guatemala City in late August. Their mission: to bring electricity to Sillab, a mountainous village in the northeastern part of the country that had never had electric power before. The project was a joint effort between Oklahoma’s and Colorado’s electric cooperatives with coordination from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)’s philanthropic arm, NRECA International. The volunteers spent two weeks at the project site working to electrify 42 structures, including an elementary school and four churches. They lodged at a nearby training center called Choice Humanitarian located about 10 miles from the project site. The linemen worked on a span of approximately 6 miles of line in hilly terrain and across vast expanses; they wired more than 40 poles and installed four transformers to bring electricity to Sillab. Now completed, the power lines will belong to a local utility, ADECORK (Associación Para Desarollo Communitario Rax Kiche; translation: Association for Community Development Rax Kiche). ADECORK will carry the responsibility of generating and distributing electric power to Sillab. The utility operates a small hydro plant with a capacity of 75 kilowatts (kW). ADECORK currently provides power to 275 consumers in nearby villages, with an average of 4 kW per home. ADECORK officials are actively seeking funds to increase their capacity for more water in order to power additional surrounding villages.
The villagers dug holes for the power poles and carried the poles to their specific locations by hand.
“I’m so impressed by the villagers,” says volunteer Bryan Kimminau with Alfalfa Electric Cooperative. “If something needs to be done, they cannot just get a machine like we do at home to do it, but they are innovative; they find a way to get it done and make it work. They carried 40 poles by hand in treacherous, hilly terrain. They’re the hardest working people I have met.”
Project volunteers say they were overwhelmed with the assistance local residents provided to the team; most villagers were available and ready to roll up their sleeves to assist the linemen in carrying tools, pulling wire or whatever task was needed.
“The people in Sillab don’t take a day off,” says volunteer Dakota Gilbert with Northfork Electric Cooperative. “They work from sunup to sundown and they’re always willing to help.”
Volunteers said villagers were also instrumental in the wiring of the homes. The Energy Trails team wired 37 homes, four churches and an elementary school. Homes received four lightbulbs, two electric outlets and two switches.
Jarrod Hooper, a project volunteer with Cotton Electric Cooperative, worked on the wiring of the homes during the entire project; Hooper said going inside each home and interacting with the homeowners was a privilege and a humbling experience.
“The villagers sleep on wood-frame beds with no mattresses. There were spiders and scorpions that they lived with, but they embrace it as part of their life,” he says. “They are the most joyful people.”
Among themselves, the linemen from Oklahoma and Colorado formed a brotherhood they say will last a lifetime.
“This crew is amazing. Everyone worked well together and made everything go smoother,” says volunteer Trevor Howard with Northwestern Electric Cooperative.
Every team member was impacted by the friendship formed among the linemen; despite state borders, they say the team became one.
Life in Sillab
The day-to-day life in Sillab is simple and arduous, but it is not free from joy.
“Just to see how happy they are with how little they have is priceless and humbling,” says volunteer Dusty McNatt with CKenergy Electric Cooperative.
Villagers live in extreme poverty without running water, plumbing, food refrigeration and—until recently—without electricity. Most homes have dirt floors and are constructed with wooden planks, leaving gaps in the walls. Some homes even lack a door. They have straw roofs, and when it rains is not uncommon for water to leak into the living space. The villagers cook over an open fire inside their homes and the smoke from their primitive stove stays in the house; the wall openings become necessary as a way for the smoke to escape.
The men of the village are typically gone for days, weeks or months working the fields on crops such as corn, coffee, or spices. The women and children stay behind and grind corn to make tortillas, their main staple. While there is one elementary school in the village, it is
for the children to only attend school a couple days of the week; many kids do not advance in their education past fourth grade.
“The villagers work so hard. We have things so much easier in America,” says team leader Mike Wolfe, operations manager with Southwest Rural Electric Association. “We don’t realize what it is like to work for everything we have.”
Now with the gift of electricity, Energy Trails volunteers are hopeful the quality of life in Sillab will change for the better.
Turning the Lights On
On the morning of the last day of the project, the Energy Trails team reviewed the connections to ensure everything was working properly. In the afternoon, local residents gathered at the school for a farewell celebration. The volunteers said it was pouring down rain before and after the celebration, but while the celebration happened the sky was bright and clear. Hulse, who was asked to pray over the villagers during the farewell celebration, says the sunny sky was “a gift from God.” After his prayer, one woman in the village stood to express how thankful she was to have electricity.
“She looked very emotional and teary-eyed and told us she was thankful she wouldn’t have to make tortillas at 5 a.m. in the dark anymore,” Hulse says.
For most of the team members, the farewell celebration was an emotional moment as linemen said their goodbyes to the locals and left behind some of their tools to assist villagers in their day-to-day work. Volunteers had the opportunity to gift water filters and backpacks with school supplies to the community as well.
One experience that stood out for Hulse was receiving hugs from a family after he gifted them some tools.
“The villagers have changed our lives. We are all better men today,” Hulse says. “We are coming home as better men to our families and to our co-ops.”
In their prayers, the Energy Trails team will fondly ask for continued joy and prosperity for the people of Sillab; most likely, the villagers of Sillab will think lovingly of their American friends during their prayers as well.