These Boots Were Made for Giving

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor


Richard Johnstone

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. 


Home ] Up ] Caught in the Web ] Cover Story ] Down Home ] [ Editorial ] Happenings ] Perspective ] Rural Living ] Say Cheese ]