David Callis has seen many things in his three-decade career with electric cooperatives. But the recently retired CEO of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association said one image that has stayed with him is the face of a boy at the funeral of his father, a co-op employee who had passed away suddenly.
It was that memory, he said, that led him to volunteer for the board of the Cooperative Family Fund, a new nonprofit that provides financial assistance to children whose parents die while employed by an electric co-op.
“This fund would have been a tremendous assistance to that family if this was in place then,” Callis said. “Now I have something I can participate in and be proud of.”
The fund was started after the idea was presented to the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. (CFC) board of directors by Tony Anderson, general manager of Cherryland Electric Cooperative in Grawn, Michigan, who has supported Big Brothers/Big Sisters for decades, including running a fundraising marathon in every state.
The Cooperative Family Fund’s mission is to provide each child of a parent who dies while an active co-op employee a trust account that will be available to the child on his or her 18th birthday. CFC helped get the organization certified as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit, and it began accepting donations on Jan. 6. NRECA’s Homestead Advisers will manage the trust accounts.
“Electric co-ops care deeply about their communities and their employees are family,” said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson. “This fund will help staff families during their darkest days and let them know their co-op cares.”
“We appreciate the opportunity to provide investment expertise in support of such a compassionate and meaningful purpose,” Homestead CEO Mark Santero said. “This truly touches our employees’ hearts.”
Fund volunteers will also help co-ops prepare a memory book for the family of the employee and coordinate other ways to care for the grieving family, such as organizing groups to attend children’s recitals, sporting events or other milestones.
“These kids are on a journey that is going to last the rest of their lives, and there are little ways we can help them along that journey,” said Anderson, who lost his father when he was 18 months old. “My dream is to have 20 co-op employees at a ballgame for that kid.”
“After the loss, these kids will still get a reminder that they belong to a co-op family,” he said.
Once the organization learns of a co-op employee’s death, a board member will contact the co-op and provide information about how the family can apply to the fund and how the co-op can begin gathering information and photos for the memory book and offer support.
Serving on the fund’s board, in addition to Callis, are:
- Vice President Alan Wattles, CEO at Monroe County Electric Cooperative.
- Secretary Kris DeJarnette, vice president of marketing and digital strategy at CFC.
- Treasurer Dennis McFee, vice president of member services and communication at Roanoke Electric Cooperative.
- Anne Harvey, senior vice president of member solutions at Pioneer Utility Resources.
- Kerrie Robison, human resources director at KAMO Power.
Robison, a mother of four, said she was moved when she learned about the fund at the Annual G&T Human Resources Association meeting in 2022.
“Being in HR, I know that these are the hardest conversations to have,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do or say to help. That’s where Cooperative Family Fund comes into play. The fund will provide the exact help they need.”
As of early February, five electric co-op employees have died this year, leaving a total of 15 children under the age of 18 without fathers, Robison said.
“As co-op employees, we feel embraced by the co-op, this daily sense of family,” she said. “It’s only right that we expand that to the children who have lost a father or mother.”
Cathy Cash is a staff writer for NRECA.