Co-op Hands Lift Homes and Hearts

Touchstone Energy’s Community Service Project is “God sent” for San Diego residents

Raenal and Anne Smith stand in the backyard of their San Diego home as volunteers spruce it up during the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives Community Service Project. (Photo By: Luis Gomez Photos)

SAN DIEGO—Around dusk on Sept. 13, 2015, Wesley Hilaire strayed from his family during his first-ever visit to Mission Beach, a popular park at a Pacific Ocean lagoon. A frantic search ensued, but the four-year-old was not found until the next day, when his body was recovered about 100 yards offshore.

On Saturday, Raenal Smith watched electric cooperative volunteers take paint brushes to his house and shovels to his yard as part of a much-needed home repair project. And he knew who was directing them—his grandson, Wesley, watching from above.

“My grandson went up there and said, ‘I need help for my grandparents,’ ” Smith said softly.

Some 120 co-op directors, staffers and spouses uprooted elephantine plants, mended fences and set patio stones during the 9th annual Community Service Project, sponsored as a prelude to the NRECA annual meeting by Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives with Rebuilding Together San Diego.

“We take for granted that cooperatives give back to their local communities. That’s the cooperative DNA,” said Mary McLaury, chief operating officer of Touchstone Energy. “Volunteers from Touchstone Energy co-ops across the nation, giving generously of their time and energy to help their urban neighbors, really embody the cooperative spirit.”

If ever a street needed a helping hand, it was 59th Street, a narrow incline in the low-income Encanto section of San Diego, on which Smith’s home and four other target houses were within 200 yards of each other.

“We couldn’t have found better recipients,” said Deanna Hutchison, project manager for Rebuilding Together San Diego, which has rehabbed hundreds of area homes and facilities. “The neighbors see people loving each other and the community coming together. It’s such a beautiful thing.”

Smith and his wife Anne have lived in their small three-bedroom house for about eight years. In addition to Wesley’s death, Anne’s father died recently. So they’ve had little opportunity to paint their house or fix a crumbled brick area that their six grandchildren use for bike rides.

“It’s a blessing. This is God sent,” said Smith, who works at a major home improvement store. “Usually, I get out here and do my own work. But between her dad, our grandson, it’s been a lot of heartache for us.”


Board President Rudy Brouillette of Oneida-Madison Electric Co-op in New York digs and removes overgrown brush during the Touchstone Energy Cooperative Community Service Project. (Photo By: Luis Gomez Photos)

A couple of houses to the north, teams of workers labored on a radical deforestation effort. Epifania Rodriguez has a passion for gardening and spent the last 40 years surrounding her two-bedroom house with hundreds of trees and shrubs.

But though Rodriguez at 86 still participates in yoga and Zumba, she’s past the point of being able to care for the property on her own. Co-op workers filled up a dumpster and a 12-foot-long cargo van with overgrown residue from just about every manor of fauna that can thrive in San Diego.

In one case, a palm tree never removed from its planter had topped 30 feet high.

“I haven’t seen anything quite like this. Nature does what nature does. I’m glad we could help,” said Keck Melby, a director at Lutsen, Minnesota-based Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, as he yanked tap roots from the ground.

Anna Johnson, Rodriguez’s only child, choked back tears as she explained what the work meant to her mother. “I have been trying to do this for so long. She planted all this. She used to maintain it and now she can’t,” she said.

Derice Vega, eight months pregnant, beamed as volunteers worked on the two-bedroom house she lives in with husband Adrian and their three kids.

Three years ago, the couple took out a loan to upgrade Adrian’s beloved childhood home. Not long into the project, the contractor skipped town.

“He even left his Porta Potty, so we had a portable toilet in our front yard for two years,” she said. “We’re so excited. We’ve waited so long for this. It’s a miracle to us.”


A group of volunteers shows off their work at the home of Susanne Taylor (with dog Sam) during the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives Community Service Project. Susanne’s father is battling cancer, and she and husband Robert have been unable to tend to their house as much as they want. (Photo By: Luis Gomez Photos)

In many cases, the work was painstaking and meticulous. From The Energy Cooperative in Newark, Ohio, directors Nelson Smith and Donald Hawk joined Hawk’s wife Janet in painting an ornate wrought-iron fence with a 15-pronged sunburst pattern of weaves and waves at one residence.

“I don’t know who designed the fences, but this is the toughest paint job I’ve seen,” Smith observed.

Meanwhile, Jim Meiers of the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation applied coat after coat of paint to fill the nooks and crannies of an exterior stucco finish common to the area. “I’m kind of glad I live in the Northeast where you don’t have a lot of stucco,” he joked.

Attending his first service project, Glen Cantrell, manager of legislative and public affairs at SEMO Electric Cooperative in Sikeston, Missouri, decided the initiative was something he’d like to take back home.

“This is a great way to serve a community where you have these large conventions by giving back and saying, ‘Thanks for letting us come to your city,’ ” he said. “I’d like to see us incorporate something like this in our communities every year. The need is certainly there.”

Steven Johnson is a staff writer at NRECA.