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Changing Lives ‘Forever’

Language of linework spans countries as crews electrify Guatemala

by Preston Knight, Communication Manager

There’s power in the unspoken word.

Utility poles and wires are designed to accomplish the same goal regardless of their location and the nuances of. how they are manufactured. This held true for SVEC lineworker Tim Wright during his October trip to electrify a Guatemalan village, where a lasting memory is climbing a pole with a local counterpart who spoke no English.

“I didn’t speak any of his language, and he didn’t speak any of mine,” he says. “We both knew what was going on. We figured it out.”

Wright, from Augusta County, and Luke Swanson, a lineworker from Winchester, were SVEC’s representatives who spent more than two weeks with a Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives’ group in Guatemala. Alongside the local Empresa Municipal Rural de Electricidad, the crew brought light to 500 villagers in the jungle outside of Santa Isabel, Ixcan.

“They were so excited for that,” Swanson says. “As soon as the local power company heated it up, cheers.”

To get there, it took building rapport on multiple levels. Wright and Swanson, for example, had never met. Then, there was learning the vernacular of other crews, and not just non-English-speaking ones.

“Different co-ops use different words for everything,” Swanson says. “Half the time, someone from central Virginia or southwest Virginia, they’re not going to call something how you call it. I disregard all the ones they said. I don’t think I could remember one of them.

“We’d be in the right category [of topics], but they would need to explain it a different way.”

Verbal interactions with EMRE could largely be ignored, too. Santa Isabel residents primarily speak a Mayan language — Q’equchi’ — so any outsider’s knowledge of Spanish was of little use there.

Fortunately, language barriers did not stand in the way of what was unanimously considered an impactful experience.

“It’s going to change their lives forever,” Wright says.


The trip nearly ended before work could begin. Civil unrest from recent Guatemalan elections shut down streets when the crew arrived. They walked about a mile to the roadblock, where translators helped convince protestors to allow the group to move forward. An eight-hour bus ride from the airport to the hotel turned into a 12-hour excursion.

“It was cool seeing them go against something they felt was wrong,” Swanson says. “They never bothered us. It was never a hazard.”

For Wright and Swanson, the trip represented their first international travels. SVEC received a high amount of interest among lineworkers willing to go and picked two names from a hat to attend. In recent years, the co-op sent other lineworkers to Haiti and Bolivia, all part of National Rural Electric Cooperative Association International.

“It might be the only time I have the opportunity. Why not?” Swanson says.

Wright says: “It was the chance of a lifetime. I didn’t want to miss out on it. It was more than I expected.”

That goes for the overall trip but also specific elements. The village was more remote than Wright anticipated, and the heat, topping out at 113 degrees one day, required adjustments.

“It was a different kind of heat down there,” Wright says. “The first day we overdid it. A lot of us were suffering from heat exhaustion. We slowed down, made sure everyone was taking turns, staying hydrated.”

Swanson says drinking an “incredible” amount of water, supplemented by sports drinks, helped crews endure the blazing temperatures. They picked up a routine of departing for breakfast at 6:30 a.m., heading to Santa Isabel and returning at 4:30 p.m. to best deal with the hot and humid conditions.

“It can be suffocating,” Swanson says. “A lot of them down there wear long-sleeve shirts. I wish I would have brought more. It cools you better.”

Unlike construction jobs in the Valley, there were no bucket trucks to ease the load. Poles had to be climbed, amounting to about a year’s worth in two weeks.

Power tools were limited. The material was slightly different than what SVEC uses, as were the specifications on certain equipment.

Those represented minor challenges for a breakthrough in not only the lives of the Guatemalan residents, but for their short-term visitors as well.


Lineworkers who have made international trips come back with a heightened sense of appreciation of American life, and they try to communicate that among co-workers and the communities where they live. Wright and Swanson are no different.

“You walk in those houses, and it’s a dirt floor and literally a shack,” Wright says. “It puts in perspective how good we have it here.”

The Guatemalan project, in comparison to the trip three SVEC lineworkers took to Bolivia in 2018, provided easier access to basic life necessities for crews and was generally more modern, such as a hotel with Wi-Fi access. The local utility’s office had an outdoor pool. A few residents had cellphones that they kept running with small solar chargers, until the crews arrived.

Since 2012, when the first sponsored project was built, co-ops from 18 states have traveled to Guatemala and Bolivia, bringing electricity to over 2,500 people.

Co-op crews provide more personnel and knowledge to expedite what the local crews have accomplished.

“It would have taken them a long time. We had probably three times as many people as they did,” Wright says. “They couldn’t do it day to day with all they had going on.”

Most houses in the latest project received two or three lightbulbs and outlets. That’s not enough electricity to run appliances, but you start somewhere.

“I was happy to see they were appreciative. It made it worthwhile,” Swanson says. “You could tell it made a big difference to them.”

Co-op crews played soccer with local kids and fielded a team to face off againsta squad from the local utility. One day culminated with an arm-wrestling contest between the teams of lineworkers.

Residents were in the giving mood with fruit. One man cut up a coconut and offered it to the team, and the driver of a tuk-tuk vehicle introduced them to
rambutan, or lychee, as it’s called there.

“They’re some of the happiest people I’ve ever been around,” Wright says. “It was awesome.”

Words may never describe what the lineworkers gained from the experience.

“You need to feel it down here, not just see it,” Swanson says in a video taken during the trip. “[It is] definitely a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity