November-December 2019

Bernie Hastings gave a soccer ball to a Bolivian youth. But he was gifting much more than that.

For when Hastings presented the plaything during a project in which 15 electric cooperative lineworkers powered rural Bolivia, he extended a lifeline to the child and the residents of a hardscrabble village, bringing them electricity and the promise that comes with it.

“These people work hard. It’s amazing. They have nothing,” says Hastings, a lineworker at A&N Electric Cooperative (ANEC). “I hope that light bulb changes their future. You talk about education for the youth. The cure for cancer might be in Bolivia in a village somewhere. Only time will tell, of course.”

For two and a half weeks in September, lineworkers from eight electric cooperatives brought power to five communities, each consisting of a handful of houses constructed from sand, mud, adobe and thatch, as part of United We Light: Project Bolivia.

They completed their mission without bucket trucks, digger derricks or high-tech tools. Instead, they pulled and strung more than 13 miles of power lines by hand over rocks and cacti, hung nearly half-a-dozen transformers on craggy slopes and desolate valleys, and made connections to about 37 dwellings in weather ranging from full sun to hail the size of golf balls.

“I hope every cooperative member-consumer in our three-state region will be filled with as much pride as we are at what this team accomplished. We are approaching the holiday season and through their selfless efforts, they gave the best gift of all — the gift of light,” says Richard G. Johnstone Jr., president and CEO of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives (VMDAEC).

The association sponsored the trip with NRECA International, an arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) that works to electrify developing nations. The trip was made possible thanks to support from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. (CFC), the National Cooperative Services Corporation (NCSC) and a host of vendors that supplied the men with essential gear.

The group included workers from A&N Electric Cooperative; BARC Electric Cooperative; Central Virginia Electric Cooperative; Choptank Electric Cooperative; Northern Neck Electric Cooperative; Rappahannock Electric Cooperative; Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative; and Southside Electric Cooperative.

A long day’s journey

Arriving after three plane connections and a 10-hour bus trip, crews were taken aback to see how residents eked out their lives, without quarrel, in subsistence conditions.

“It didn’t take you very long to figure out that these people had nothing. I mean, they were actually living in the stone age,” says Patrick Ambrose of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), who watched two women skin a llama with a rock because they lacked a knife. “We made a dream come true by getting them electricity.”

The project gained traction earlier this year when Alan Scruggs, vice president of safety and training services for the VMDAEC, toured potential work sites with John Medved, director of safety and compliance at REC. Medved, a volunteer on a previous NRECA International trip to Haiti, served as team leader.

Most such trips involve work at one or two sites, but United We Light: Project Bolivia undertook service to five widely dispersed areas. “John and I probably underestimated what it was going to take to do some of those jobs,” Scruggs says. “But the crew went down there and they just knocked it out. I didn’t have any doubts about that because I know how our people work, but I know it was tough.”

The biggest issue was the altitude — 13,000 feet above sea level in some locations. Nosebleeds and labored breathing came with the territory. “It’s almost like you took three steps for every step. We’d climb a pole, we’d take three or four steps, stop, take a break, try to get your breath back and then continue on,” says Jason Purvis of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC). “It eventually got a little better. But any kind of physical activity, you were stopping.”

That wasn’t the only hurdle. A bus ferrying workers got mired in mud for four hours. A hard day’s work led to unappetizing meals — shredded llama, some cheese and two eggs was one bill of fare. With the labor, food and altitude, virtually everyone lost 10 to 20 pounds.

But the hospitality of the Bolivians, shy at first then welcoming, lifted their spirits. In mountainous Achoco, locals helped pull wire and hoisted 50-pound tool bags on their shoulders to take to the work teams.

“They’re a little bit more acclimated to this elevation and they showed us up when it came to pulling wire out,” laughs JT Jacobs of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC). “But it was a big help to the success of the job.”

The conclusion was inescapable: Power changes lives. Kent Farmer, president and CEO of REC, witnessed that with co-op CEOs Greg White of NNEC and “Butch” Williamson of ANEC, and Scruggs at an “inauguration” ceremony in which power lines were energized. “We met an 82-year-old woman who told me she didn’t think she would live long enough to see electricity in her home, and that now she could die happy,” Farmer says.

An emotional ending

In one village, residents draw well water by hand with a bucket. Now, they have an electric water pump to do the job. In another area, pumas hide in the mountains to kill llamas — an important meat and pack animal — at night. Now, villagers can shine a light to keep the poachers at bay.

“I thought coming in here that I would enjoy the fact that I’m bringing power to someone who’s never had it and bringing joy to those people,” says Mike Johnson, a 20-year veteran of Choptank Electric Cooperative. “What I’m taking back is the joy of them changing my life because I won’t ever complain about petty things when I see that these people don’t have much and they appreciate everything they do have.”

Lorenzo Arroyo is mayor of Coniri, which has lost about half of its 15 families to communities that have electricity. When Purvis handed him some local currency, Arroyo picked the bigger lineworker off the ground and started crying.

“Can you believe that?” Purvis recalls. “Oh, it was amazing. And then we turned the lights on and, all of a sudden, everybody was just running into the room looking at the light bulb and crying.”

Because the light bulb signaled hope.

“With the electricity grid that is being installed, people will come back,” Arroyo says through an interpreter. “We are so happy, we have no more words to say ‘Thank you.’ ”