By Dwain Hebda | Photography Courtesy of AECC
Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas President and CEO Duane Highley couldn’t believe his ears.
A crew of linemen from Indiana had just completed a 12-day campaign to electrify a village of 450 homes in the mountains of Guatemala. Highley barely had time to bask in the literal glow of their accomplishment when Mel Coleman, CEO of North Arkansas Electric Cooperative in Salem approached, announcing, “We have to come back.”
It seems a village girl, Esna Vasquez Lucas, who cut the ceremonial ribbon on the project signaling its completion, had pulled Coleman aside and asked when the workers would be back to bring electricity to her grandmother’s village nearby. Coleman, who’d suggested Arkansas’ electric cooperatives make the first trip, melted at the request and promised they would be back.
“Here we had just finished one project, and Mel’s talking about coming back to do it again,” Highley says. Then, a broad grin creases his face.
“If you think there’s more to this life than this life, then you can afford to be generous,” he says. “We’re really just stewards of what we’ve been given here. We have an obligation to help those people out, and we’re blessed beyond belief, so we have the ability to help them out. It’s just something we can do, and we should do.”
A program coordinated by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), a trade organization for the nation’s 900 electrical co-ops, gives employees from various states the chance to bring electrical power to some of the most remote settlements in the hemisphere.
For Highley, his executive team and the leaders of the state’s various co-ops, the program offered a chance for AECC to fulfill the same mission and objectives as what was brought to fruition in the 1930s and 1940s.
“We are formed under seven cooperative principles, and if you look at the final cooperative principle, it’s concern for community,” Highley says. “Co-ops don’t exist in a vacuum as just an energy company; they tend to be a community support company. We take that whole principle of concern for community not just to mean that our community ends in Arkansas, but it goes on around the world.
“There’s still a billion people waiting for electricity on this planet. When you define yourself in that broad way, you start looking for opportunities to help. It’s kind of the DNA of cooperatives.”
From that first trip in October 2013, the AECC has been back to Central and South America nearly every year. In that time, Operation Razorback, numbering around 15 linemen plus a couple of AECC staffers, has brought power to villages in Guatemala and Bolivia.
They arrive in the village to discover that much of the infrastructure has already been put in place by the locals in advance of their arrival, representing months of manual labor. As the linemen work on connections – often on poles adjacent to soaring mountain vistas – the villagers assist with various tasks. Working together resulted in fast friendships between the natives and the visiting Arkansans, many of whom had never been outside the country before and some who’d never been outside the state.
“It’s very life-changing for many of them,” says Rob Roedel, director of corporate communications who’s gone on all of the trips. “It changes their perspective and their outlook tremendously. Specifically, when you do something like they do every day – installing power lines, doing cut off and connections – it gets monotonous after a while. You forget how special the gift of electricity really can be.”
Everywhere they have gone over the years, the crews have been hailed as heroes. Villagers, many of them coffee farmers living with their families in small huts of wood, tin and cinder block, have shared their meager homes and foodstuff to feed the crew and invariably threw a party at the end of the project. In return, lineman have given their new comrades boots, clothes, tools and blankets.
Even among such goodwill, however, crews occasionally saw stark reminders of being strangers in a strange land, accompanied by hosts who helped them navigate any problems that came up.
“We go into some pretty remote places in the mountains, in the jungle,” Highley says. “These areas are challenged from a governance standpoint. When we were in Guatemala, we’ve had times when we’ve had some of the drug lords raiding villages or what have you, so we saw an increased security presence by the government.
“One of the trips, we had to stop every few miles for armed guards. All these guys have got AK-47s, I’m not speaking the language, it’s a little unnerving. I’m really grateful we’ve got a host there who could talk the language. He could say these are the good guys.”
By far the best scene throughout any of the trips is when a home turned on its lights for the first time. Linemen clamor to witness those moments, often as emotional as the homeowners themselves. Highley says the impact of the work – both in the immediate and long-term – is profound.
“If you don’t have electricity, then you’re working all the time just to survive,” Highley says. “It’s empowering for women more than anything because they don’t get to go to school, these young girls. We’d see them get up in the morning and they’re marching down, gathering the firewood, bringing water. I mean, little girls, if they’re big enough to carry water, that’s what they spend their week doing.
“So, if you can have electricity, your people, your girls can go to school, and they can become emancipated from all of this. They can have more productive lives.”
Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc. was formed in 1944 to provide support to the rural electrical cooperatives that had sprung up in the state over the previous five years. At the time, only about 10 percent of Arkansans had electricity, and the purpose of these entities was to engage in rural Arkansas electrification. Highley smiles at photos from that period and the similarities between 1940s Arkansans turning on lights or buying electrical appliances for the first time, and the villagers served over the past five years.
“This one grandmother had a TV and a DVD player so that her grandchildren could watch educational, Sesame Street-type videos,” Highley says of one household. “They had an electric sewing machine where they had been using an old trundle-type machine.
“But her pride and joy – and this is what broke my heart – she dragged us into her kitchen to show us what she had, and she had an electric steam iron. This had changed her life, something as simple a steam iron was saving her maybe 10 or 20 hours a week in work.”
If there’s a symbolic patroness of the trips, it’s undoubtedly Felicita Lopez Vasquez, a 92-year-old grandmother who’d been swindled by con artists before AECC showing up. The thieves had installed wires and fixtures then disappeared with her money without connecting the electricity. Vasquez had been staring at the apparatus in her darkened hut for seven years when the Arkansas team finally brought them to life.
“I watched this 92-year-old woman get power to the house that she was born in, raised her children in and still lived in,” Roedel says. “The cool part was, the second she turned that switch on, I watched those linemen just tear up.”
“Every time it’s just transformative,” Highley says. “It’s the most gratifying work I’ve ever been involved in.”