One by one, lone figures walked silently to the front of
the room, each carefully placing a worn pair of boots on a waist-high stage.
These boots had shod the feet of electric cooperative linemen through
torrents of water, over blistering blacktop, during ice storms and icy
weather, and even through hurricanes, too.
But the used footwear brought forward by these electric
cooperative board members was not part of some ceremony honoring service
rendered; no, indeed, these boots were being gathered for givin’, for
shipment to a place that desperately needed them, where they would be given
a new life, and maybe even save one in the process. These soles weren’t bound for Heaven; they were on their
way to Haiti.
This boot-leather revival of sorts took place during the
annual meeting this past summer in Norfolk of the regional association that
provides various services to the 15 electric cooperatives in Virginia,
Maryland and Delaware. The theme of this meeting focused on the Seven
Cooperative Principles, which articulate the half-dozen-plus-one
foundational touchstones that guide the policy-making and the everyday
operations of every cooperative business.
October is Cooperative Month, and it’s a perfect time for
recounting these seven principles: Voluntary and open membership ...
democratic control ... economic participation by the customer-owners ... the
autonomy and independence of each cooperative ... keeping the
customer-owners informed and the employees and board members trained ...
cooperation among cooperatives.
And then there’s the seventh principle: concern for
community. These three words are not a clichéd branding tagline; they’re a
truism: of course cooperatives are concerned about community! Cooperatives,
after all, are made up OF members of the community; staffed by folks FROM
the community; overseen by a board elected BY members of the community. So,
the community’s health and the cooperative’s health are one and the same.
This concern for community takes different forms in
different communities, depending on the needs of the community, the
resources of the cooperative, and the wishes of the membership. But it
always involves efforts to nurture and sustain the community, whether it’s a
single act as simple as installing lights at a local ballpark, or an ongoing
action as intense and involved as working with local officials to attract
businesses and jobs to the area.
But while most of our focus is on the local community
where we live and work, cooperatives also recognize that there are larger
communities as well: our state, our nation, and other parts of the world,
from Afghanistan to Zaire. And, of course, Haiti.
A catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 shook that
island nation from unstable and fragile over into devastated and desperate.
It’s hard for us in the strongest, most prosperous nation on earth to
imagine the human agony inflicted by this natural disaster on one of our
globe’s weakest, poorest nations: hundreds of thousands dead or injured and
millions out of work, with many of the unemployed living in makeshift camps.
And sadly, the suffering continues today on virtually every front, from
housing to healthcare. To electricity.
Haiti’s electricity infrastructure was never strong, or
widespread, or reliable. And it was only made worse, of course, by the
earthquake. Teams of electric cooperative volunteers have been assisting
Haitian authorities since January of last year in rebuilding the country’s
electricity infrastructure. This relief effort is coordinated through the
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, based in Arlington, Va.
Among the first volunteers to go to Haiti were two linemen
from Central Virginia Electric Cooperative near Lovingston, south of
Charlottesville. Bryon Sandridge and Chris Allen were moved by the spirit of
the Haitians, and distressed to find that many line workers over there
labored in substandard boots, soft-sole shoes, or even barefoot. When they
returned to the U.S., Bryon and Chris were determined to find a way to help
their new-found colleagues.
So they started an effort they dubbed “Boots for Haiti,”
by asking fellow linemen to donate used but still useable boots to be sent
to Haiti’s line crew workers. The effort spread, and electric cooperatives
throughout Virginia, Maryland and Delaware joined in, as did other
cooperatives in other areas, as well.
At the gathering of regional electric cooperative leaders
mentioned in our opening paragraph, more than 60 pairs of boots were donated
and later shipped to Haiti.
It was a modest but meaningful testament to the
cooperative concern for community, for filling needs where and when
possible, whether they exist across the road ... or across the sea.