With COVID-19 restrictions eased, a team of 16 lineworkers from electric cooperatives in Oklahoma and Colorado are heading to Guatemala in August to electrify a small mountain village of about 250 people as volunteers for NRECA International.
It’s the first international trip in two years for co-op volunteers, who were sidelined during the pandemic. During their 19-day trip to La Montanita de la Virgen in southeastern Guatemala, the lineworkers will extend distribution service to 76 adobe homes, an elementary school, a small church and a health care center. Nearly a third of the villagers are children.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for two years,” said Brandon Shirey, a journeyman lineworker from Cimarron Electric Cooperative in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. “I want to see the beautiful country, meet the people and help provide them with something that will change their lives.”
The experience will undoubtedly change the lives of the volunteers as well, said lineworkers who have volunteered in Guatemala before and are returning in August.
“It’s not often that we’re able to give of ourselves and know that we actually made a difference,” said Matt Montgomery, a safety coordinator at Vinita-based Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative who is returning to Guatemala for the second time with a team organized by the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives.
“To see the lights come on in people’s homes for the first time never got old,” Montgomery said. “We were all looking at the people’s faces when we flipped the switch. It was phenomenal to see the joy and wonderment in their faces.”
The residents of La Montanita de la Virgen are excited that they will soon have power, and they’re doing their part to get ready, said Chet Stickler, a line crew foreman from Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, who is making his second volunteer trip to Guatemala.
He visited the village in April as part of a planning trip with Liz Fiddes, director of member services and education at the Colorado Rural Electric Association, Damon Lester, the project team leader and a line foreman with Indian Electric Cooperative in Cleveland, Oklahoma, and Ingrid Hunsicker, senior program manager at NRECA International.
The villagers will be digging holes and erecting power poles so they’ll be ready for the volunteer team of lineworkers to wire 75 poles and install six transformers along a 7-mile stretch of mountainous terrain. Each home will end up with four lights, two outlets and a small circuit panel.
“Without their help, we wouldn’t be able to complete the job,” Stickler said.
He said people have to haul water from a spring outside the village every day to drink, cook and bathe. Electricity opens up the possibility that they could have a pump one day.
“Being there now is like taking a step back into our early pioneer days when everything had to be done by hand,” Stickler said. “We get to experience what life was like when our grandparents got electricity for the first time.”
Dan Waddle, senior vice president for NRECA International, said that’s a big part of why the volunteer program is so important. Co-ops from Arkansas and Florida will be volunteering in Guatemala this fall.
“NRECA International can offer our members the opportunity to see and feel the real value of the electrification experience—to turn on lights in homes and energize rural businesses just as their cooperatives did decades ago,” he said. “Young co-op employees can have the same experience that their predecessors had and understand the essence of what electric co-ops offer to their communities.”
That point was underscored when Fiddes met a 53-year-old Guatemalan woman who has raised eight children with no electricity. The woman has to mill corn by hand for four hours a day to make tortillas for her family, including five children who still live at home.
“She dreams of refrigerators and having a corn mill for the community,” Fiddes said. “If she could get four hours of her day back to spend with her family, it would mean so much.”
Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.