Leaders of Tomorrow
February 27th, 2012 by Mike Federman

Local utilities promote programs that develop a good work ethic and civic duty in area youth

From left, Holly Scott, Lana Chamberlain and Brandi Zollinger check out an exhibit at the Idaho Capitol in Boise. The students were representing Raft River Rural Electric Cooperative during the 2009 Idaho Youth Rally in Caldwell. Photo by Dianna Troyer

From left, Holly Scott, Lana Chamberlain and Brandi Zollinger check out an exhibit at the Idaho Capitol in Boise. The students were representing Raft River Rural Electric Cooperative during the 2009 Idaho Youth Rally in Caldwell. Photo by Dianna Troyer

Whoever coined the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” must have been talking about a public electric utility.

Nowhere is that phrase more appropriate than in how local utilities participate in educating young people in the communities they serve and giving them opportunities to succeed they might not otherwise have access to.

Utilities provide scholarships, offer job shadows, support FFA and 4-H through purchases at junior livestock auctions, and prepare students for public service careers by sending them to youth rallies in California, Idaho and Washington, D.C.

“We make sure our members know that what separates us from big, for-profit, investor-owned utilities is a local focus, with investment back in the communities we serve,” says Angela Perez, communications and government relations specialist with Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, based in Baker City, Oregon.

OTEC will award 28 scholarships in 2012 to people in its service territory. Two of the scholarships are specified for lineman school. OTEC also sends a group of high school juniors to join 1,500 other students from across the country at the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour each June in the nation’s capital.

The youth tour was inspired by an address to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in 1957 by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who said, “If one thing goes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents.”

Besides learning about the legislative process and how electric cooperatives operate, students visit museums and other landmarks in Washington, D.C., during a week of activities.

“When we promote the youth tour, we let our members know we’re providing an opportunity for students in an economically depressed rural area who might not otherwise ever have a chance to experience an educational opportunity like this,” Perez says. “That’s an investment directly into this region. These students will bring rich experiences back home from D.C. or from college to share with and inspire others. Some of these students will return home to work, creating an educated work force that is so vital for communities to thrive. These kinds of long-term investments are what keep the concept of the ‘cooperative difference’ relevant in the 21st century.”

OTEC is one of the largest electric cooperatives in the Northwest and serves consumers in four Eastern Oregon counties. On the other end of the spectrum is Nespelem Valley Electric Cooperative, based in Nespelem, Washington, which is one of the smallest public utilities in the Northwest.

Despite its size, NVEC supports its area youth through participation and sponsorship of junior rodeo, high school career day and job shadows at the co-op.

NVEC also sends students to the Youth Energy Seminar, or YES camp, each July in California’s Sierra Nevada. This year, the camp will move from the Truckee area to the Grizzly Creek Ranch near Portola.

Besides high-energy outdoor activities and confidence-building exercises, YES camp is similar to the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour in that participants create and manage their own cooperative.

“It is important for our youth to know what a co-op is and how it operates as a member-owned utility,” says NVEC General Manager Laura McClure. “Every one of them comes back and says how much fun they had with all of the activities. More than anything is the students go by themselves. Some of them have never flown on an airplane before. It gives them a chance to meet people from other parts of the country.”

YES camp is sponsored by the Nevada Rural Electric Association. North across the border, the Idaho Consumer-Owned Utilities Association Youth Rally at the College of Idaho in Caldwell draws participants from as far away as Alaska.

The youth rally helps teens develop leadership skills and teaches them how their co-ops operate, how electricity is produced and distributed, and how co-op managers deal with issues affecting the electric industry. Teens hear motivational speakers, tour the Idaho Capitol, visit Swan Falls Dam, attend a formal dance and perform in a talent show.

“It’s one of the best services we provide for our members and leaves a lasting impression on participants,” says Ralph Williams, retired manager of United Electric Cooperative, based in Heyburn, Idaho, who helped organize the first rally in 1986. “It’s amazing to see the self-confidence they develop by week’s end. They’re all in a new environment with no stereotypes of who they are. They’re encouraged to step out and be who they want to be. With self-confidence and the new knowledge they have, they’re set up to be a leader. Many who were introverted at the start of a rally come back the following year holding some type of leadership position in their school.”

After attending a youth energy conference, students can speak knowledgeably to family, schoolmates or the community about transmission and distribution lines, wholesale power supply and the benefits of the cooperative business model.

Participants in past youth events in Idaho, California and Washington, D.C., have returned home to become employees at the same utilities that invested in their futures.

Their experiences are shared with others and are used to inspire the next generation of public servants and community leaders.

Ruralite writer Dianna Troyer contributed to this report.

Community Interaction

  • In the state of Washington, public utility districts sponsor students for eligibility for the Walkley Scholarship, an annual education scholarship established by a former PUD commissioner.
  • Tillamook People’s Utility District of Tillamook, Oregon, hires one or two high school graduates each year to work part time at the utility. Through the PUD’s Employment for Education Program, the students work during school breaks. The money earned typically is applied toward tuition and textbooks.
  • Lassen Municipal Utility District of Susanville, California, plays an important role in the children’s fair sponsored by the Lassen County Office of Education. LMUD employees offer bucket truck rides for kids, with as many as 500 children getting rides during the one-day event.
  • Umatilla Electric Cooperative, of Hermiston Oregon, sponsors Hydromania, a series of summer science camps at local schools. Hydromania curriculum is geared toward fourth- and fifth-graders.It focuses on the science of water, the environment and energy.