Lighting a new path
Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives bring electrification to Guatemalan village
The village of La Montanita de la Virgen was bustling with activity in a mid-September morning. It was a festive atmosphere with blue and white balloons and ribbons decorating the community’s elementary school. Several Guatemala flags and a blue backdrop with gold letters that read “Guatemala 201 years of independence” provided a patriotic ambiance. The local kids were well groomed and dressed in their best. With their eyes fixed on the school’s principal, they heard instructions about the performances they would present to the crowd. Eagerly waiting, the kids sat in chairs lined out in front of the school. Behind the school gate, community residents – parents, grandparents, friends, and relatives – waited for the performance and watched lineworkers walking back and forth on the village’s main road. The men in hard hats and gray shirts that read “Energy Trails” were taking care of last-minute preparations for the moment everyone was anticipating: the lights coming on. This day marked a dual celebration. The villagers honored the 201st anniversary of their country’s independence, and the lights came on at their village for the first time. It was a celebration of light and freedom.
The Path for Energy Trails
The electrification of La Montanita de la Virgen marks the 5th international project for Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives. Twelve lineworkers from 10 electric cooperatives in Oklahoma joined four lineworkers from Colorado to bring first-time access to electricity to this remote village, in the department of Jalapa in the central-east part of the country. The community of La Montanita, with approximately 560 residents, is located within the municipality of San Pedro Pinula.
Volunteer lineworkers spent three weeks in La Montanita building powerlines, installing six transformers and conducting internal wiring for 81 homes, two churches and one elementary school. Each home, most of adobe construction, was equipped with two outlets, two switches and four lightbulbs. At 4,600 feet elevation, the lineworkers installed 77 poles on a span of 3.1 miles of primary line and 2.17 miles of secondary line in mountainous terrain.
The work could not be completed in a timely fashion if it were not for the help of villagers who would do anything needed to help the lineworkers, according to project volunteer Justin Marsh with Southwest Rural Electric Association.
“Every day as we pulled into the village, there would be about eight to 10 men waiting to help,” Marsh said. “They helped us pull wires, carry tools and even did some right-of-way work. They were amazing.”
The project is coordinated through the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s philanthropic arm, NRECA International. During the lighting ceremony, Roberto Ramirez Guerra, the mayor of San Pedro Pinula, said the town had been in conversations with NRECA International since 2019 to bring electricity to the village; however, the pandemic stalled the project until 2022.
“We’re very thankful to God. His timing is perfect. Today, a dream becomes a reality. Thank you for doing this project that meets a great need in our community,” Guerra said during a lighting ceremony. “Electricity is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Your work will be remembered forever.”
A Resilient People
Volunteer lineworkers were impressed with how resilient and resourceful the local people were; they noticed the villagers picked up left over pieces of wire for repurposing.
“Nothing goes to waste, they find a purpose for everything,” Shane Stiger with Indian Electric Cooperative said. “We came up to a part of the village that had many rocks by a creek. The women scrub clothes on those rocks to do their laundry. The rocks are even shiny from all the scrubbing – it shows how resourceful they are.”
The joy of the villagers even with few possessions brought significant impact on the lineworkers. The villagers gifted the lineworkers with fresh fruit such as pineapples, oranges and bananas.
“Where we come from, if you don’t have all the amenities you need, you’re upset. In this village, it’s the complete opposite. Status is not what you have. Everybody lives with little, but they’re full of joy. They are respectful, generous and thankful,” Brad Hunter with Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, said.
Prior to the lineworkers arriving at La Montanita, men in the village carried poles and installed anchors to prepare for the framing of poles. Volunteer lineworkers said the villagers put in sweat equity to ensure the project was complete.
“The most impactful part of this project was seeing the resiliency of the people in the village. They are from the dawn of time and have maintained themselves for all these years,” Marsh said. “I’d like to think we have helped to improve their existence; I know they have improved mine.”
A Brighter Future
The project team leader, Damon Lester, with Indian Electric Cooperative, compares the electrification of La Montanita to the planting of a seed.
“We planted a seed that will be harvested for years and years. It’s not going to become a big plant by tomorrow, but it will continue to grow and will bear fruit with time,” Lester said. “The elders see it as a convenience, the younger ones see it as opportunity for economic development.”
Lester estimates it will take approximately 10 years for real change to come to fruition in the village. Access to electricity will enable growth in education, security, health care, economic prosperity and overall, a better quality of life.
“There’s no doubt that access to electricity changes life for the better,” Chris Meyers, general manager of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives said. “I’m proud of each of these volunteer lineworkers for leaving their homes and families for three weeks to fulfill this mission that will benefit generations to come.”
Lester, a third-time volunteer and second-time team leader, said the experience brings about two different impacts. The first impact is on the village benefitting from access to electricity, paving the way for growth. The second, and perhaps greatest impact in Lester’s opinion, is on the changed lineworkers.
“These men have served the village and represented the industry in a capacity that exceeds their job title. It’s a different feeling when you do something completely out of love,” Lester said. “The villagers have made the lineworkers better humans. When go back home and begin to unpack all that we have experienced, that’s when real change happens. If you talk to any of the volunteers, listen for the passion in their voice.”
That morning in mid-September, the local kids recited poems and performed dances and songs for their newly formed friends, the lineworkers. The lights came on in the school and sounds of shouts, cheers, laughter and even some tears filled the classroom. They celebrated freedom, friendship and the gift of light.
Click here to see more photos from this project.
To all of the Oklahoma Living readers who sent funds to the Oklahoma Energy Trails Foundation for the purchase of water filters and backpacks – we thank you! Your generosity has blown us away! Because of your kindness, our team gave away 100 water filters, 100 backpacks with school supplies, and we even had left-over funds to buy a couple of fans and help the school build a new bathroom. None of this could be accomplished without your generosity, your compassion and your desire to serve. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you! May you be blessed beyond measure!
– Anna Politano, OKL Publisher