One Lightbulb Makes a Difference

Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives bring power to remote villages in Bolivia.

One Lightbulb Makes a Difference

Wade Hurst (right), Oklahoma team leader, walking with Oklahoma Electric Cooperative volunteer Derec Janaway (left) at one of the job sites in Bolivia. Photo by Jim McCarty/Rural Missouri

Seventeen days away from home. Tired linemen sit together to enjoy one last meal in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Loud laughs, jokes, and an amusing phone conversation with Ramiro Suez—the team’s bus driver—undeniably show the brotherhood and camaraderie around the table. Back at the hotel, their bags are packed and tools put away. It has been a challenging and fulfilling journey. The linemen spent more than two weeks in Bolivia building powerlines to electrify two remote villages. It was an unforgettable experience to see the sparkle in the eyes of the villagers who turned the lights on for the first time, but now—with a sense of fulfillment and mission accomplished—they are ready to return home and hug their families. 

On the eve prior to an early flight to the United States, Oklahoma team leader Wade Hurst shared the impact of his experience. Tears rolling from his eyes, the 48-year-old safety director and second-generation lineman described what he calls a “heartstring” moment. 

“Most of the villagers live with basically nothing and no electric appliances. There were times I wondered what one lightbulb was going to do … ‘Was it really going to make that big of a difference?’” Hurst reflected, choked up with tears. “But then I remembered the children who do homework by candlelight. When I turned the light switch on at the first house, the bulb brightened the entire home. Yes, one lightbulb makes a difference.” 

The first home that was wired and received power in the village of Dos de Junio belonged to Carlos and Noemi Chatari who are both deaf and mute. To them, and to the other 360 families impacted by this project, one lightbulb makes a world of difference—just like it did in rural America 80 years ago when electric cooperatives were formed.

Energy Trails Beginnings 

With coordination from NRECA International, the philanthropic arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives (OAEC) and the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives took on a joint project to electrify the villages of El Torito and Dos de Junio in the Amazonian area of Bolivia. Standing on the legacy of rural electrification, co-op leaders from Oklahoma and Missouri had the vision and desire to bring light to families who had never before had electric power. 

“Rural electric cooperatives are known for bringing power to areas that would not otherwise enjoy electricity,” OAEC General Manager Chris Meyers said. “It’s rewarding to know we made a difference for families who are striving to have a better quality of life.”

The villages are located in the outskirts of Riberalta, a city of 90,000 inhabitants with one local electric cooperative providing electricity, Cooperativa Electrica Riberalta (CER). Sixteen volunteers from Oklahoma and Missouri tackled the project, which was an expansion of service for CER. The project consisted of 280 poles over a span of 10 miles of line. Hurst said 3 ½ miles consisted of three-phase primary line and 6 ½ miles was comprised of secondary line. Local co-op linemen assisted the volunteers with the project. 

“The younger linemen were fascinated with our processes for building lines,” Hurst said. “The way we build line, we do as much as we can while we are working on a task, so when we come back the next time, it’s easier. Our process is more streamlined.”

The local linemen were instrumental in the preparation of the project. Prior to the volunteers arriving on site on August 2, they dug holes and installed 280 poles by hand. Hurst was impressed by how perfect the hand-dug holes were. They also installed anchors on the poles. CER’s Director of Operations Eligio Villarroel, told the volunteers it would have taken the co-op five years to do the work the volunteers did in two weeks due to lack of resources, funding and personnel time. 

Local Conditions

The project took place between August 1 and August 17. This time period was selected since it is the winter and dry season in Bolivia. Volunteers expected temperatures to be in the 70s or 80s, but the average temperature while they were there was 96 degrees, which made the manual labor more challenging. Another obstacle was the relentless amount of dirt. High winds and dry village terrain caused very dusty conditions—to the point of at times resembling “Dust Bowl” days. At the end of a day’s work, the linemen, the trucks and their belongings were covered in dust. Linemen were also challenged by a “stink.” Due to inadequate sewage systems, villagers burn their trash daily. Dead animals are also burned, causing a foul odor in the air. 

Hurst said the quality of the poles in Bolivia was lower than the poles the volunteers are used to climbing at home. “Let’s put it this way: the quality of our poles at home is a 10, and the quality here was a three,” Hurst said. “The poles were much more difficult to climb, but our guys were over-prepared and made it look easy when it was not easy.” Another challenge the crew faced was a four-day delay on a crate of tools they had sent to assist in their work.

“When we realized the crate was delayed, we had to work backward to build the lines. Everyone understood we had to be flexible. We did everything we could to stay on track and we finished the project ahead of schedule,” Hurst said. Jeremy Baker, a lineman with Cookson Hills Electric Cooperative based in Stigler, Okla., said the work was not too overbearing. Instead, what impacted him most was the hospitality he experienced.

“It was challenging but not as labor intensive as I thought it would be. It helped that we had prepared at home by climbing poles and going through physical techniques,” Baker said. “What impressed me the most was the generosity of the people. They didn’t have much, but every day they would bring us a two-liter bottle of Coke in the middle of the day to quench our thirst. They were happy people and had a lot of joy.” Inauguration Day On August 14, 2016, local citizens were invited by CER for a 6 p.m. ceremony to formally turn on the lights. Representatives from NRECA International, NRECA Board Officer Curtis Wynn, OAEC General Manager Chris Meyers and officials from CER were present at the ceremony along with volunteers from Missouri and Oklahoma electric co-ops. “Oklahoma and Missouri are proud to send their finest men to share their talents with you,” Meyers said at the ceremony. “We live many miles apart, but we have so much in common. We care about our families and friends, and now we’re all members of an electric cooperative.”

A stage was set up in the middle of a street in Dos de Junio, and a string of light bulbs was hung from one pole to another. The atmosphere was that of celebration, with loud Bolivian music and many smiles. The village residents were holding signs of appreciation for both NRECA and CER. 

“We believe no person should live without the benefit of electricity. We at NRECA are committed to this cause,” Wynn said. “I want to thank the linemen who are here, not only for their commitment at home, but also for their commitment in another country far from home.” 

After remarks were made, CER officials turned on the lights. It was a dream come true for the locals. 

A 50-year-old resident, Carmen Cardenas, said it was the first time in her lifetime she would have electricity. Cardenas has eight children who do homework by candlelight every evening. Her husband spends one month at a time away working the fields near the Amazonian forest. She creates dustpans in her backyard to sell at the market for 10 bolivianos ($1.40 U.S. dollars). Cardenas’ home and other households receiving electricity were equipped with one lightbulb per room and two electrical outlets. The future of Cardenas’ children will be impacted by access to electricity.

 “I moved to Dos de Junio five years ago to have my first piece of land. Now, I will own my land and have electricity,” she conveys in Spanish with a gracious smile, hugging her 7-year-old daughter, Jovana. “It’s unsafe to do anything at night without lights.” 

Safety has been a concern for residents of El Torito and Dos de Junio. Cardenas’ daughter, Carmezita, has been robbed while returning home from school. Carmezita is 22 years old and is now completing sixth grade. She works during the day as a housekeeper in Riberalta and attends school at night. Volunteer linemen were made aware that neither CER nor the local government had planned to install streetlights in Dos de Junio and El Torito due to lack of resources. To enhance safety in the villages, the volunteers took it upon themselves to buy streetlights. NRECA International and the local co-op contributed to the funds to buy streetlights as well. On the morning of Inauguration Day, they installed 11 streetlights in Dos de Junio and four in El Torito. 

“These guys donated all their time and went above and beyond to buy streetlights,” Hurst said. “The safety factor is very important.” 

The Road Ahead 

In time, CER will build more powerlines to keep up with the expansion in the villages. According to Hurst, the volunteers built a feeder line. As residents are able to purchase electric appliances and increase the energy consumption of their homes, the co-op will need to upgrade the lines to meet a growing demand for power.

“We built the backbone and the co-op can come off that in the future,” Hurst said.

But as Cardenas said, having one lightbulb right now will enhance their quality of life. 

The volunteers said they experienced more change in themselves than the change they brought to the villages. One memory they will carry is of a 4-year-old girl who came to them one day as they had wrapped up their work. They were exhausted and sitting in the shade waiting for their ride when the cute little girl came by, wearing a red tank top and blue jeans. One of the linemen gave her a peanut butter cookie; she took the cookie, went home, and came back wearing a different shirt. The cycle continued. She would receive something from the linemen and go home to change her shirt or put on a hat. 

“It was too cute. She kept everything in her pocket, but she wanted us to believe she was another little girl. It was a moment we will not forget. It pulls your heartstrings,” Hurst said smiling.

The linemen are going home with newly formed friendships and new perspectives. The trip has taken them back in time nearly 80 years to when rural Oklahomans came together to build powerlines for those who had never had power before. In the 1930s and 1940s, rural electrification pioneers went door-to-door organizing cooperatives and performed all the labor by hand to make the gift of electricity a reality. 

To Hurst, building lines in a remote area and working by hand also meant following in the footsteps of his father, who was a lineman for 35 years. In his climbing days—around 1966—it was rare to use bucket trucks or digger trucks. As a son watching his dad he reflected, “What else would be more cool than growing up to do what your dad did? I wish dad were still alive so I could share with him what we did here in Bolivia. He would understand,” Hurst said filled with emotion, remembering his father who passed away in 2012.

His dad would understand how much one lightbulb makes a difference. The legacy he passed on to his son has enabled families who have been less fortunate to have a brighter life. Learn more at: