BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS, NEWS EDITOR
One Boyne City man is part of a group of electricity specialists working to provide power to a remote village in Guatemala right now.
The group, working in an effort with members of the Michigan Electric Co-op Partners for Power and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), is constructing a power extension to give electricity to nearly 54 families of Guatemala’s rural Buena Vista community.
“The residents have never had electricity before,” Great Lakes Energy Vice-President of Communications and Marketing Shari Culver told the Boyne City Gazette. “Three Great Lakes Energy linemen are on the trip—including Boyne City resident William LaTourneau, who speaks fluent Spanish.”
LaTourneau and the rest of the volunteers are expected to complete their 10-day project by mid-November.
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“They’re a little ahead of schedule, which is good,” Culver said. “The villagers all set the poles and our linemen are there to string the wire and energize it.”
The mountainous terrain in Guatemala has made things challenging for the crews but, Culver said, they have pressed on.
A website featuring the work of the volunteers is located at http://www.partnersforpower.org.
“More than 1.6 billion people in the world remain without electricity,” says Partners for Power. “That’s why Michigan’s electric cooperatives are partnering with the NRECA International Foundation to bring electricity to remote villages in Guatemala.”
According to Partners for Power, Buena Vista is located near the border of Mexico and nearly seven hours outside of Guatemala City.
“This community produces mainly corn and beans, as well as some cattle and timber,” it states on their site. “Some villagers own properties in lower lands where coffee is grown. Access to electricity will provide improved healthcare, better education, safer streets and economic growth.”
Great Lakes Energy linemen working in Guatemala with LaTourneau are Adam Brewbaker of Afton and Tony Reichle of Fremont.
“We’re very supportive, and that is why we sent the linemen who volunteered,” said Culver. “It’s a great humanitarian effort. One of the cooperative’s principles is ‘concern for community’ and we do so much here, this is a different way we can give to people who’ve never had electricity before.”
She added, “These people are so excited to have electricity and the benefits it’s going to bring to them and their lives. The volunteers are just overwhelmed by the reaction of the local folks in Guatemala.”
Culver said Kevin Evans of Charlevoix traveled there earlier this year as part of the engineering planning team.
“We did have another team of employees go earlier in the year to look at the job from an engineering perspective,” Culver said. “They looked at what would be needed to do the construction and make lists of tools and equipment they would need over there. All the supplies needed had to be flown from here to there.”
She added, “It is hard for a lot of us to imagine what it would be like to live without power. It’s changing their lives.”
Culver said GLE employees and board members donated money for the trip along with personal items filling six suitcases for the villagers.
“Employees also purchased Partners for Power clothing, raising an additional $2,800,” she said. “Half of each clothing purchase goes to the project. Your readers are welcome to also purchase a clothing item. They’re available until Dec. 1.”
While Great Lakes Energy has numerous projects intended to support local charitable efforts, this is the cooperative’s first international effort.
“Since 2007, our employee have raised $32,300 through silent auctions at our holiday luncheons,” said Culver. “Approximately $3,500 is given to the Boyne Area Community Christmas every year through these donations. We receive quite a bit of support for our auctions from local businesses who donate items. Employee departments also build themed baskets that are part of the auctions.”
On Tuesday Nov. 10, Great Lakes Energy presented a check for $19,993 to Char-Em United Way. Those funds, which benefit United Way agencies and charities throughout GLE’s service area were, raised through employee donations.
Culver said the Great Lakes Energy People Fund is supported by the co-op’s members who round up their bill to the nearest dollar each month. And, since 1999, they have given $2.7 million in grants to local nonprofit organizations.
A member-owned cooperative, Great Lakes Energy has seven main principles by which it operates—concern for community being chief among them.
“We’re doing this in the spirit of what cooperatives are all about,” Culver said. “Electric cooperatives formed in the ’30s because electricity wasn’t available in rural areas. So, farmers banded together and formed co-ops, and electricity was brought to this towns and towns all over the country when they couldn’t be served by larger utilities.”
GLE gives back to the community as well as its members.
“As a cooperative, we return our profits to our members as capital credit refunds,” Culver said. “Counting this year, we’ve returned $46 million to members in the form of capital credit refunds since 2003. The refunds will be given as billing credits in December.”
According to Culver, Great Lakes Energy works with a statewide association that represents all the electric co-ops in Michigan. MECA, Michigan Electric Cooperative Association, is coordinating the trip to Guatemala and made the initial contact with the NRECA International Foundation. NRECA Intern’l had three options for our group to choose from – two in Bolivia and the project in Buena Vista.
The project in Buena Vista, Guatemala has the potential for us to return in future years, so that was the main reason we chose to send our team there.
Approximately $48,000 in materials was donated to the project by utility contractors/suppliers RESCO (also a cooperative) and The Hydaker-Wheatlake Company along with some donations from the cooperatives themselves.
Hydaker-Wheatlake, based in Reed City, also donated the manpower and equipment to load and package all of the materials which included bolts, connectors, wire, transformers, guy wire, anchors, safety equipment, tools and triplex.
It has truly been a team effort by many members of our cooperative network, giving even more meaning to the name Partners for Power.
Some of the volunteers working on the project have chronicled their experiences at the Partners for Power website.
Day 1: Leaving on a jet plane
“All bags were packed and ready to go by 4:15 a.m. this morning. And, boy, were there a lot of them!” wrote one of the volunteers. “In addition to a personal suitcase, each lineman is traveling with a ‘drag bag’ and a humanitarian suitcase. The drag bags are filled with work equipment the crews will need to bring electricity to Buena Vista, while the humanitarian suitcases are filled with items such as winter hats, shoes, school supplies and toys that were collected for the villagers by Michigan co-op employees. All together, the 10-person team is traveling with 30 bags weighing in at 1,500 pounds!”
He added, “Checking in at the airport with a large group and a whole lot of luggage is no easy task, but the process went as smoothly as possible with the help of Dawn Coon and Laurie Millen, administrative professionals from Wolverine Power Cooperative. The airport was packed and time was tight as the clock ticked toward the 6 a.m. flight. Getting everyone through security came down to the wire, but the group boarded the plane and departed on-time.”
Day 2: Welcome To Guatemala
“The flight yesterday went well and we were all thankful to land safely in Guatemala City. My first impression of Guatemala City was that it’s a very busy, active place with extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty,” wrote Adam Brewbaker. “Right after getting off the plane, a little girl and her brother approached me at the airport. Holding her brother’s hand and looking up at me, she extended her palm. The way she looked at me hit me hard, and I couldn’t help but to reach into my pocket and give her a couple dollars.”
He added, “Traffic in this busy city is very different than back home. The drivers make lots of sudden starts and stops, turn without warning and merge unexpectedly. I was glad to be a passenger and not driving!”
Brewbaker said the crew looked forward to the trek up the mountain.
“Our 10-person group, along with the translators, will be making the trip in four trucks and should arrive in Buena Vista by late-afternoon,” he wrote. “I thought traffic in Guatemala City was pretty crazy, but I hear driving up these one-lane mountain roads is a whole different adventure. As of right now, it’s still undecided who’ll be taking the drivers’ seats—we may have to draw straws!”
Day 4: A Warm Welcome
“Pulling up to the village of Buena Vista was a spectacular moment that I will never forget. As soon as the schoolyard came into view, we realized that all of the villagers—men, women and children—had gathered there to greet us,” wrote Brad P., a lineworker with HomeWorks Tri-County. “It was humbling to see so many smiling faces, all filled with such joy and gratitude, because they knew we had come to help bring them electricity. They expressed how grateful they were to us for coming, and we told them how happy we were to be there. It was emotional, really.”
He added, “These people are so ready for electricity, and they have worked hard to help make it a reality. In preparation for our arrival, they hand-dug and set all of the poles. If you could see the terrain here, you would understand what a difficult task that must have been. It is so steep, and fairly rocky. I’ve been in the mountains before, but never mountains like this.”
Brad said that he had to laugh at himself at one point on day four while he was working.
“I looked around, took note of my surroundings, and thought: ‘Well, there sure are a bunch of sheep, goats and linemen climbing around on the mountain today,” he wrote. “After seeing how much this project means to the people who live here, there is no place else I’d rather be.”
Day 5: Getting Into The Groove
“After two full-days of work, we are slightly ahead of schedule. Almost all of the primary poles are now completely framed. But, it hasn’t been easy. We had a pretty big learning curve to overcome,” said IGLE lineworker William LaTourneau. “The first day of work was somewhat chaotic. Both the environment we are working in and the tools we’re using are a little different from back home. On top of that, this is our first time working together as a team. Anytime you start working with someone new, it takes a little bit of time to find your groove. I think we’ve found ours now.”
He added, “The terrain out here is intense. Even if we had a bucket truck or a digger, there is no way we would be able to use it. We have to rely on manpower alone to do all of the work. Thankfully, the locals have been quick to lend a helping hand. They’ve been working alongside us, moving wire and carrying materials to the poles. We’re even getting to know a few of them by name.”
LaTourneau said the team worked incredibly hard the first few days and made great progress.
“Carlos hung out with us today. He is an older gentleman, about 60, and he is a hoot. He is so happy-go-lucky that everything is funny to him,” LaTourneau said. “When your body hurts from climbing all day, having a fun conversation with an appreciative local goes a long way to take your mind off the discomfort, and keep you motivated.”
Day 6: Working With Your Head In The Clouds
“We’re up so high on this mountain that we’re literally working with our heads in the clouds. It’s like trying to work in a really dense fog where you can only see a few feet in front of you. It makes it pretty difficult to ‘sag in’ wire,” wrote Wolverine lineworker Trevor S. “The poles are several hundred feet away from each other, and it can be a real challenge to tell what the wire tension is when you can’t see the span clearly. Sometimes the clouds will hang out for an hour, and sometimes they’ll blow through pretty quickly. It’s rained on us a little bit too, but it’s usually light and doesn’t last very long.”
Trevor said there are nearly 40 villagers working with the volunteers.
“I’ll tell you what: I thought I was a hard worker until I met these people! They’re pulling wire into the valleys where the elevation drop is incredible. And when it’s time to move on to the next location, they pick-up our bags and tools and carry them for us. I don’t know how we could ever do this job without them,” he wrote. “The translators travel along with us so we can coordinate the work of the villagers. Many of us are starting to pick up a few basic Spanish words, but I don’t expect we’ll be fluent any time soon.”
Day 7: A Band Of Brothers
“The way our team has clicked is unbelievable,” wrote Wolverine lineworker Bill B. “Honestly, it was like a brotherhood right off the bat. Out here there are plenty of stressful conditions, and 10 different ways to do everything. Instead of getting into a scuffle about how something should be done, we brainstorm and come up with the best solution together. We’ve developed a tremendous amount of mutual trust and respect over a short period of time.”
Bill said getting along is a necessity considering the lodging arrangements, which he compared to a glorified deer camp.
“We each have our own cot in a 20-foot by 20-foot room. Thankfully, we are all pretty neat and respect each other’s space. Having such tight living quarters really hasn’t been an issue, except at night. If you happen to wake-up in the middle of the night, you get the privilege of listening to what I call the ‘snoring symphony,’” Bill wrote. “It’s pretty hilarious to hear everyone snoring in a different key at the same time.”
Bill said it gets dark around 6 p.m., and that’s when the group usually heads back to camp.
“After supper, we spend the evening talking and reminiscing about the day. One of the reoccurring themes in our conversations is how this project would be considered virtually impossible by standards back home,” he said. “The terrain that has to be crossed in order to connect the wire from one pole to another is insane. But the locals are determined and they do whatever it takes to make it happen—scaling dangerous slopes and hacking down trees along the way.”
Bill added, “It just goes to show that, where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s nothing short of amazing what people can accomplish when they come together for a common purpose.”
See more of the men’s stories at http://www.partnersforpower.org/