Lineworkers utilize resilience and determination, turn darkness into light in Guatemala
by Jim Robertson, Staff Writer
People are resilient. Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” says Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative line technician Mauricio Paz, part of the 19-person team from 10 electric co-ops in Virginia and Maryland that traveled to Guatemala in October.
For the past 60 years, lineworkers and others from America’s electric cooperatives have volunteered to participate in mission trips around the globe to improve quality of life through the gift of electricity, thanks to coordination efforts by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association — NRECA International. The destination of this year’s United We Light trip was Santa Isabel in the Ixcán region of Guatemala, just miles from the southern border of Mexico. The goal was to construct more than 5 miles of line, install six transformers, and connect 103 homes, businesses and a school with electric service, forever changing 500 lives. Poles had been set along the rugged dirt road by the local municipal utility, Empresa Municipal Rural de Electricidad, which also assisted with the project completion.
Santa Isabel had been waiting for power for about 15 years, according to United We Light trip coordinator J.T. Jacobs, safety training manager for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives. After a dirt road into town was created — the first of its kind in the area — it finally became possible. Because it is made of dirt, however, the road is negatively affected by water and becomes filled with ruts and mud pits following the rainy season.
ADAPTING TO THE TROPICS
October generally marks the end of the rainy season, but wet and humid conditions prevailed for a good part of the 19-day expedition. Political protests throughout the region also delayed and occasionally interrupted travel to and from the project site, which was about an hour or so from the team’s accommodations. Temperatures over 100 degrees with high humidity added to the already less-than-ideal working conditions.
Hydration was critical. “The heat was exhausting,” says John Meade from Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative. “I drank more water on this trip than I’ve drank in a year.” After the first day or so, the team learned to better pace themselves, taking breaks in the shade and making sure to stay hydrated.
Several team members echoed Meade’s description of the type of heat as something they hadn’t experienced before. “The heat’s definitely different down here,” says Jared Stern, Meade’s coworker at SMECO. Luke Swanson of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative described it as “suffocating.”
Because the new road to and from the site was in such rough condition, it caused trucks to become stuck in the mud. Thankfully, some villagers witnessed this and didn’t hesitate to take action. “The next day, they were carrying rocks [in potato sacks] a pretty good distance,” says Addison Spicer of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative. They filled in the holes with the rocks, assisting with traction. “It shows how committed they were to helping us help them.”
STEPPING BACK IN TIME
Compared to American standards, residents of Santa Isabel live a simple life, to say the least. “It’s like stepping back 100 years in time,” says Allan Thacker of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative. Children mostly ran around barefooted with minimal clothing. Homes consisted of small one-room huts with dirt floors, a table, and sometimes a wooden bed. Food is cooked in pots over open flames throughout the day, making indoor temperatures even hotter by 15-20 degrees.
“It’s definitely as primitive as it gets,” says Scott Geovannello of Southside Electric Cooperative. “One thing that caught me by surprise is how happy the people are here.” SVEC’s Tim Wright also describes the villagers as some of the “happiest” people he’s ever been around.
Many homes utilize small solar panels on their roofs to power a single lightbulb or charge one cellphone or radio. At the local schoolhouse was a pole-mounted solar panel connected to several electrical outlets, including one for a public address system. On it each morning, a village official announced the arrival of the lineworker team and occasionally asked residents to assist with the work.
Every member of the team commented about the happiness they witnessed in the village, despite the lack of running water, air conditioning, bathrooms or other modern conveniences taken for granted back home. “People were joyful down here,” explains Casey Butler of Choptank Electric Cooperative. “It’s not just happiness. Happiness is based on conditions, but joy is something you choose every day — to be joyful. I won’t take things for granted anymore; [I’ll] just be grateful for what I have back home.”
Knowing where they were going, the team was prepared to not have the luxury of the type of motorized equipment used at home to perform similar tasks, much like utility crews in the U.S. during the early 1900s. They did use some modern gear from home while climbing utility poles, which usually attracted an audience. The local Empresa Municipal Rural de Electricidad crews climb with ropes, and trained the American co-op line technicians in their methods. Some took to it well.
“The kids really touched my heart,” admits Drew Leake of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.
“Kids are kids,” says MEC’s Jason Holley, who found creative ways to play with the children and have fun without toys. The team taught the kids new games using empty water bottles and other items. Thanks to the generosity of a Central Virginia church, the children were delighted to receive several toy dolls and soccer balls. NOVEC’s Mauricio Paz was popular with the young audience. In addition to speaking Spanish, he brought snacks and candy from home to share with them.
Some team members also took time to educate the children about electrical safety. With service lines hanging lower than normal, both local children and adults needed to understand the potential danger of making contact with, or hanging clothes to dry, on the lines.
From protests and rough roads to extreme heat and humidity, 19 individuals came together and formed one team determined to complete a mission. They overcame every obstacle faced, such as fuel shortages, flat tires, aggressive motorcyclists and encounters with armed security guards. Shortly after arriving in Guatemala City, the team sat for hours at a roadblock. Protestors had blocked access to a bridge that led into Playa Grande, where the team was scheduled to stay during the trip. Just as they were ready to call it quits and turn around, traffic began moving. “The good Lord was looking out for us,” says J.T. Jacobs, who believes they were meant to be there.
Additionally, the team had doubts in their ability to complete the project when the meters being shipped there were stuck in another part of the country due to road blockades. They were then faced with a choice: Leave the materials for the local EMRE crew or risk being stuck in Playa Grande for an unknown amount of time. With collective resilience and determination to finish what they started, the team mutually agreed to see the project through. Fortunately, the shipment of meters arrived on the morning of Oct. 15, allowing the team to complete their mission.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve put myself through,” admits Scott Geovannello, “but I’m very grateful I decided to go on this journey.”
The local EMRE crew was critical to the project’s success. “They’re some of the hardest-working people I’ve seen,” says Thacker. EMRE personnel also ensured the team had good nutrition throughout their stay.
Northern Neck Electric Cooperative line technician, and the first-ever female crew member to participate in an NRECA International trip, Gena Boarman expected conditions to be worse, but admits she struggled with the language barrier and trying to communicate with villagers and local crews. “I don’t speak any Spanish whatsoever,” she says.
Addison Spicer adds, “Everyone does things a little different, but at the end, we all achieve the same goal.”
Following completion of the work, EMRE representatives and Santa Isabel residents held a ceremony celebrating the historic event and thanking the United We Light team that changed their lives forever. But their lives were not the only ones affected. “It’s been fun. It’s been humbling. It’s been challenging,” says NOVEC line technician Mauricio Paz.
“I’m really grateful for the opportunity,” says REC’s Drew Leake. “It’s, hands down, the best thing I’ve ever done.”
NOVEC’s Blake Sparling learned a valuable life lesson on the trip. “You don’t need things to have fun and be happy,” he says.
Choptank Electric Cooperative line technician Casey Butler says he’ll be more grateful for what he has at home and won’t take things for granted anymore. The entire team agrees that neither photos nor videos will accurately describe the experience. “You need to feel it, not just see it,” explains SVEC’s Luke Swanson.
J.T. Jacobs was told by a villager that electricity coming to the village makes people stay in Santa Isabel. It helps families remain together and in their hometown. “It’s more than turning the light on,” he says. “It’s making dreams come true.”
John Johnston, communications and website specialist for Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, accompanied the VMDAEC team to Guatemala as an embedded journalist. The following is his written ﬁrsthand recollection of the trip:
Our ﬁrst morning in Guatemala opened with a view of rainforest vegetation, but it wasn’t until we reached Playa Grande, our base of operations, that I had a true sense of being in another nation. American stores and restaurants were few, with rare exceptions like the Domino’s Pizza that delivered our dinner one evening. Street traffic was dominated by motorcycles, three-wheeled tuk-tuks, and pickup trucks that were suited to the rough rural roads I would come to know well.
Playa Grande still did not prepare me for our work site in Santa Isabel. Five hundred Q’eqchi’ Maya people live in a village with no running water and, until 11 days after we arrived, no electric service. Although Santa Isabel is only 30 miles from the larger town, the long and bumpy drive to and from the work site increased the feeling of remoteness. Like my teammates, I had to adjust to the unseasonably hot and humid weather, learning to consume several bottles of water and sport drinks each day to stay hydrated.
The residents I met were friendly and welcoming, grateful to be getting electricity after waiting for 15 years. From an American perspective, they own very little. What they do have is a close bond as a community.
Each of us received intense curiosity from Santa Isabel’s children. They gathered to watch the team members climb poles and install house wiring and eat lunch. The mid-Atlantic lineworkers were wonderful with the children, playing games with them and showing them photos on phones. When I launched a drone to record aerial video, the kids clustered around me as the controller’s screen displayed their homes from high above. Helping to entertain the children was incredibly rewarding.
The Guatemala project put together lineworkers from different cooperatives with their professional colleagues from Empresa Municipal Rural de Electricidad. Whether they were working hard in delivering electricity, or playing hard during soccer games and arm-wrestling matches, I saw a camaraderie that transcended utility and nationality.
On the last day of work, the EMRE team activated the fuse that electriﬁed the newly installed lines. Santa Isabel’s town center is in a shallow valley that is overlooked by houses on either direction of the road. When the electricity came on, I heard shouts and loud talk from both directions, and I saw the outside lights on the buildings lit for the ﬁrst time. It was a tremendous feeling to help bring power to a community that has waited many years for it.
Along with that memory, I carried home an appreciation for the Guatemalans’ hospitality — the NRECA International team that answered our questions and helped me with interviews, the EMRE team that provided our meals, and the Santa Isabel residents who welcomed us into their homes.