How much do you know about your own electric cooperative? Many South Alabama Electric members probably know that they share ownership in a not-for-profit utility and that any money we don’t spend goes back to them. But they may not know how the cooperative system came about or why cooperatives of all kinds are still important today.
Last month, a group of local high school juniors got the chance to learn about that cooperative history and more on the Montgomery Youth Tour. These students got a crash course on how their cooperative works and what it takes to bring electricity to their homes each and every day.
Two of those students were Keldric Faulk, of Highland Home High School, and Jordan Saunders, of Zion Chapel High School. Both heard about the Youth Tour program from guidance counselors and teachers who encouraged them to apply.
Saunders says she is glad she took the chance and would encourage other students to do the same, even if she was nervous about the idea at first. “My guidance counselor said it was a great chance to meet new people and make connections,” she says. “It’s OK to be nervous going into a new situation. But nine times out of 10, you will get something better out of it.”
Meet and greet
On their two-day trip to the state capital, Faulk and Saunders got the 101 course on electric cooperatives and even made a trip to the headquarters of the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives, a federation of 22 electric distribution utilities in Alabama. Both were surprised at what it takes to run a cooperative and the complexity of the work linemen do in their community each day.
“I didn’t know how much equipment linemen actually have to wear to protect themselves while they do their jobs — the rubber arm sleeves, tools to test if a wire is hot, the spikes on their boots to climb poles,” Faulk says.
On the final day, the students had the chance to visit with their legislators to learn about the laws they are working on and how those bills are passed. But they say their favorite part of the Youth Tour experience was getting to meet other students from across the state, even if they may have been anxious at first.
“One of the speakers had us put into groups where we didn’t know anybody,” Saunders says. “She gave us a lot of opportunities to talk and get to know each other. It was fun how easily everyone got comfortable with each other when they saw that everyone else was just as nervous as they were.”
For Faulk, the sessions with motivational speaker Cea Cohen-Elliot were a particular highlight. “During the speech I really connected with some of the things she talked about. Afterward, we had a conversation that really showed me that she cared, even though she didn’t know me,” he says. “I always try to make everybody happy, but I never focus on myself. She pointed that out to me when I didn’t even know it about myself.”
Trying new things
As both Faulk and Saunders head into their senior year, they are thinking about what comes next for them after graduation day. The Youth Tour provided the perfect opportunity to explore new options, as well as validate existing passions. Faulk says the experience showed him that being a lineman could be a challenging but fun career to consider. For Saunders, it drove home how much she enjoys the chance to put her leadership skills to the test.
“I’m a president or leader in a lot of the clubs in my school, and the trip solidified for me that I want to be the one standing up in front of a crowd and being a voice for others,” she says. “I think that it just really magnified that that’s where I think my place is in life.”
While they may have been nervous about jumping into a new opportunity, the experience was ultimately well worth taking the chance. And when it comes to other students in the same position, they offer nothing but encouragement.
“I don’t always love meeting new people, but it really isn’t as bad as it seems,” Faulk says. “So I’d tell them don’t be scared to try something new.”
About the Youth Tours
The Youth Tour also gave students the opportunity to meet representatives from other schools and across the state.
The idea for the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour goes back to 1957 in Washington, D.C., when then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association annual meeting.
“If one thing comes 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,” he told cooperative leaders.
Since then, nearly 50,000 students from rural areas and small towns across America have participated in the program, visiting their state capitals with the chance to visit Washington, D.C., to learn about lawmaking from their own representatives.
SAEC will begin accepting applications from students later this year for the 2023 Montgomery Youth Tour. For more information or an application, talk to your school guidance counselor.