In the first international electrification project since early 2020, volunteer linemen from Oklahoma and Colorado recently returned from Guatemala after successfully bringing electricity to a rural village. As the pandemic forced countries to close their borders and made travel difficult, if not impossible, international electrification projects were suspended.
The trip to Guatemala, which wrapped up in mid-September, was organized by NRECA International and the Oklahoma and Colorado statewide associations, and supported by $70,000 in grants from CFC and NCSC.
Twelve linemen from Oklahoma and four from Colorado traveled to La Montanita de la Virgen, a village of about 560 people in southeastern Guatemala. The trip marked the fifth international electrification project for Oklahoma and the third for Colorado.
“We believe investing in the gift of light for those who don’t have it means that we are paying it forward,” General Manager and CEO of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives (OAEC) Chris Meyers said. “Access to electricity has elevated the quality of life in rural America, transforming our day-to-day life with a vital service. It is an honor to provide this gift for generations to come to those who wouldn’t otherwise have it.”
Kent Singer, executive director of the Colorado Rural Electric Association (CREA), noted, “This program has substantial benefits, both for the places that the teams electrify and for those volunteers who are part of the projects. There are ripple effects into the lives of the lineworkers, their own kids and their families, as well as through generations of villagers in Guatemala.”
The volunteer linemen worked for three weeks in Guatemala, wiring 77 poles and installing six transformers across more than five miles of primary and secondary line. They then connected 81 homes, one elementary school and two churches to the newly built lines, giving the villagers access to electric power for the first time. The linemen also did the internal wiring of each home, installing two outlets, two switches and four lightbulbs. The power lines will be maintained by a local municipal utility and connected to the national grid.
The team was working in mountainous terrain and experienced quite a bit of rainfall, but they pressed on with their mission until the project was complete.
“There were no bucket trucks so the guys climbed every pole,” Liz Fiddes, CREA director of Member Services and Education, said. “There is no simple way to get the lines up and down the hills. Together with the villagers, they pulled all the line by hand.”
The villagers were eager to help with the project any way they could, including carrying and setting all the poles.
Justin Marsh from Southwest Rural Electric Association in Tipton, Oklahoma, remarked, “Every day as we pulled into the village, there would be about eight to 10 men waiting to help. They helped us pull wires, carry tools and even did some right-of-way work. They were amazing.”
Clayton Shonk from White River Electric Association in Meeker, Colorado said, “It was a privilege to use the line work trade to make a positive difference in the lives of the people of La Montanita. Their simplicity, joy and friendship were truly a gift.”
Having electricity opens up many opportunities for the village, from enabling students to study and do homework after the sun goes down, to equipping households with appliances we take for granted.
“One of the village women told us that it takes her two hours, twice a day, to walk to a neighboring village and grind her corn to make tortillas,” Fiddes said. “To save four hours every day will give her more time to focus on her family and other interests.”
Project team leader Damon Lester with Indian Electric Cooperative in Cleveland, Oklahoma, compared the electrification of La Montanita de la Virgen to the planting of a seed.
“We planted a seed that will be harvested for years and years,” Lester said. “It’s not going to become a big plant by tomorrow, but it will continue to grow and will bear fruit with time. The elders see it as a convenience; the younger ones see it as opportunity for economic development.”
In addition to electrifying the village, the linemen used funds raised by OAEC and CREA to purchase three fans for the school classrooms and replaced the school’s outdoor restrooms. In addition, 100 backpacks filled with school supplies, hygiene items and other treats were handed out to local children. Each family also received a water filtering system.
“We are grateful for the financial help provided by CFC and NCSC,” Meyers said. “These grants are incredibly appreciated and needed to fulfill missions like this. The grants allow us to pay for equipment, materials, airfare, lodging and various expenses related to completing the electrification of this village.”
Both OAEC and CREA hope to participate in future international projects.
“The lineworkers who participate are the biggest supporters of Colorado doing a future project,” Fiddes said. “They come back so pumped about the projects and what they are able to accomplish for these people who so appreciate what they do. They really want their fellow lineworkers to have the opportunity to experience ‘turning the lights on’ somewhere where there has been no electricity before.”
CFC CEO Andrew Don (left) presented CFC and NCSC International Projects Matching Grants of $70,000 to Colorado Rural Electric Association Executive Director Kent Singer (center) and Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives General Manager and CEO Chris Meyers (right) during the Rural Electric Statewide Managers Association meeting held on November 9.