Climbing More than Mount Kilimanjaro

The Rhodes family while on vacation in Hawaii. NRECA International, Mount Kilimanjaro
The Rhodes family, (left to right) Steve, Tami, Samantha, and Nick Rhodes while on vacation in Hawaii. (Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes)

Steve Rhodes lives for challenges. As the CEO of the Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative (CHELCO) he leads an organization of 140 employees, and serves more than 48,000 members in Walton, Okaloosa, Holmes and Santa Rosa counties in the Florida panhandle. Additionally, he is responsible for a utility services subsidiary with another 50 employees, and is the immediate past president of the Touchstone Energy board of directors. But Steve thinks it’s time to raise the stakes. In September, Steve and his family plan to take the message of rural electrification to new heights.

Their mission: climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise $30,000 for the NRECA International Foundation and its mission around the world.

At more than 19,300 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent and will be far from an easy climb. But Steve and his family of hikers are already in intensive training to reach the peak with the goal of personal, family and global growth motivating them the whole way up.

The NRECA International Foundation, a philanthropy created in 1985, partners with NRECA International, U.S. electric cooperatives and others to foster economic development and improve lives in developing countries. The Foundation is supported solely through voluntary donations, with more than 300 member cooperatives, individuals and many private organizations contributing time, money and materials to dozens of projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The Foundation’s goal is twofold—accelerate the pace of electrification to bring safe, reliable and affordable power to the developing world, and to refine new ideas that can enhance and improve existing programs. But that takes funding—and that’s where Steve, Tami and Samantha want to make an impact.

“It’s the perfect combination of family, pushing our limits, memory making and philanthropy all bundled into one trip,” said Samantha, a graduate of The University of Toledo in Ohio. She also recently joined the co-op family serving as the new associate editor at Country Living, the official publication for Ohio Rural Electric Cooperatives – the statewide association.

“It’ll be the experience of a lifetime, and the best part is that we all get to share it together as a family — as the best things in life should be. Life is intended to be lived, not just survived. So when the means and timing combine perfectly with an open door of opportunity, you have to make the most of the circumstances God has granted you. And that’s just what we’re doing.”

Samantha also explained that the Rhodes motto is “’Family Comes First’, something Steve has instilled in the Rhodes family from a young age. Her brother Nick was also set to be part of this mission until other obligations will only allow him to support this family adventure from afar.

With Samantha’s recent graduation, these are exactly the messages Steve and Tami are hoping to instill in their daughter, seeing this trip as a symbolic “send-off” for her in many ways, especially as she enters the professional world.

“I can’t wait to see the growth in Sammi and watch the way she approaches and takes on the challenge,” said Tami.

“Over the years I’ve come to realize that adversity builds strength,” Steve added. “Whether we overcome a challenge or not, we are better for having taken it on. I think this holds true for building character as well as building and strengthening bonds between family members. By facing this challenge together (win or lose) we share an experience that we’ll always remember because of the difficulty involved. While spending a family vacation at the beach is fun, and it’s something we like to do, it will never provide the inner satisfaction and bonding that climbing a mountain does.”

Before joining CHELCO, Steve worked as the CEO at Kosciusko REMC in Indiana, further spreading his ties in the co-op community. It was during this time that Steve first became involved with NRECA’s international work. Steve worked with other co-ops in the state to send volunteer linemen and other personnel to Guatemala to construct electric lines in a rural village. Through their combined efforts, they brought electricity to those who had never known its benefits.

“While I had been aware of NRECA’s international program for many years, this project brought it home to me,” said Steve. “I saw firsthand the excitement in my linemen’s eyes and in their words when they returned home and shared their stories. It touched them deeply. Their experiences lit a fire in me and if we can play just a small role to raise funds for similar efforts throughout the world, I’m in.”

Since 1962, NRECA International has provided access to electricity to 110 million people in 42 developing countries in the world. The team has helped facilitate the growth of improved health, education and economic opportunities, resulting in increased agricultural productivity, millions of new jobs in micro and small enterprises, and higher incomes and quality of life for many rural communities.

Tanzania, where the Rhodes family will ascend Mount Kilimanjaro, is one of the countries identified in the recently-signed Electrify Africa legislation that would benefit greatly from aid and assistance to receive reliable and affordable electricity for its population.

All three said that without a doubt, they would love to volunteer or work in Tanzania to help if the opportunity were to arise.

“If you think about it, nothing improves a life more than access to electricity, said Steve. “From daily chores to nighttime security to modern technology. Nothing has a bigger impact than electricity. As a family, we want to do our part.”

To follow the Rhodes family on their journey, visit their blog! And help support their mission by donating today.

Please send mail-in donations to:

NRECA International Foundation,
P.O. Box 75472
Baltimore, MD 21275-5472

Be sure to mention “RhodestoKili” in the memo.