Cover Story

Helping Haitians

Seventh Cooperative Principle, ‘Concern for Community,’ Shines in This Season of Giving

 

by Cammie Tutwiler, Contributing Writer

Photo Courtesy of John Medved

The holidays are, for most people, a time of reflection and celebration. Spending time with family members, people are grateful and give thanks for the blessings in their lives, what they have, and what they are able to share with others. In some parts of the world, however, people don’t even have what we’d consider to be one of the most basic components of modern life — electricity. This year, Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative’s (SVEC) Lineman First Class John Medved joined a group organized by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) International Foundation and worked to bring electric service to an area near Coteaux, Haiti.

 Background

Over the past 50 years, NRECA International has worked to provide people in developing countries with access to safe, reliable and affordable electricity. For 110 million people in 42 countries who have benefitted from the organization’s work, life has improved through the better education, health, clean water and economic opportunity that all come with access to electricity.

“In a nutshell, better healthcare, education, economic viability and safer streets — much of which we take for granted here in the U.S. — all start with power,” said Zuraidah Hoffman, international communications manager for NRECA, in an email.

“You can tell the story a number of different ways, whether it’s to do with clean water, women’s equality, access to education for children, or preserving vaccines, but none of that can happen without safe, affordable and reliable electricity,” he added.

Medved was in Haiti from May 16 through June 6. He participated in the Haitian Rural Electric Cooperative (HREC) Project, which will create the first electric cooperative in Haiti. Upon completion, the project will serve up to 1,600 consumers between the towns of Port-a-Piment, Coteaux and Roche-a-Boteaux, running on a new diesel-solar hybrid-generation system.

“I got the call on a Wednesday afternoon to see if I wanted to go, and I emailed Greg (Rogers, SVEC manager of district operations) Wednesday night, and Thursday it was confirmed,” Medved said.

He left eight days after the trip was confirmed, not much time to take care of the usual chores before leaving the country.

“In the previous 12 months I had spent six weeks out of the country, three weeks in Mexico (doing mission work) and now three weeks in Haiti,” Medved said.

The Trip

Right away, Medved noticed that things were different in Haiti, very much apparent on the way to Coteaux, where he said driving was almost a contact sport.

“It was the craziest driving I’ve ever seen. The driver would honk four or five times a minute, not in a mean way, but like a ‘hey, I’m here,’” Medved said.

Where the group stayed in Coteaux, the people were very nice and appreciative of what he and the others were doing.

“The people were very kind in Coteaux, they knew why we were there, to give them power. Some of the children have never experienced having electric service. The town had electricity seven years ago, but doesn’t have it now.”

Most days, he said, he and his fellow workers would climb poles to string primary or secondary lines. Medved said they set about 50 poles, eight by hand, and noted that he climbed more poles in three weeks in Haiti than he has in three years with his cooperative.

Something else very different in Haiti is the lack of cold, fresh water. Normally, co-op workers in the U.S. have a cooler strapped to the back of their truck, allowing easy access to cold water on the job. Not so in Haiti.

“Water was hard to get. In Coteaux, there was a water-and-ice plant, where you could get drinkable water in pint-sized bags that were sealed,” he said.

With electricity, he noted, people can have refrigerators and not only have cold water all the time, but also have the option to store perishables that would otherwise spoil.

“The economic impact would be positive, as stores could remain open past dark without a generator. Fuel is expensive, especially if you have to drive an hour and a half to get it,” he said.

Another benefit to having electricity, which sounds basic enough, is the addition of streetlights.

“Some of the areas (in Haiti) are very dark. On the main roads, there are solar-powered streetlights, but on some of the side roads and smaller villages there aren’t streetlights,” he said.

Medved said the positive feelings brought about by a day’s achievements were equaled by that of time they spent after work getting to know the locals, who made them feel like they were part of their town and family.

“It made me feel great to go help out,” he said. “We always had an audience wherever we were working, whatever we were doing. Sometimes the Haitians, and people in the community, would help us carry poles in, if we couldn’t get a truck to a location.”

Lasting Impressions

In keeping with the cooperative way, Medved and the others from the NRECA group went above and beyond their jobs in what they brought to Haitians — especially the little ones.

“We took gifts — I brought some little flashlights to give to the kids, one guy gave candy, and another some coloring books and crayons. We would hand them out and hang out with the children and the townspeople almost every night,” he said.

The camaraderie between the NRECA group and the residents was exceptional, he said, adding that the Haitians were very friendly.

“There was more of a community feeling than in most places. People would talk and walk around — they spend a lot of time outside because nobody has electricity,” he said. “So, everybody knows everybody and talks.”

Small things that we in the U.S. take for granted are major items to Haitians, Medved said, things such as a light switch, a receptacle and a refrigerator.

“Until you see that first-hand, you really can’t grasp how different the world is in a developing country. There are people who have never had, and who don’t know, what ice cream is. That’s just a simple thing, and in the big picture, it doesn’t amount to anything, but that is their current situation,” he said.

Medved said the Haitians know what’s important — families, friends and their religion.

“The majority of Haitians are Catholic, and I had the opportunity to go to a Catholic Church with [HREC Project Manager, NRECA International] Dana Brosig and most of the kids in the community were in attendance. There were probably at least 100 children there, and they put on a program where they sang. You could tell it was very important to them,” he said.

Medved said that when it was time to come home, he wanted to stay, noting that things that initially seemed very different to him had become normal, and that coming back would mean another transition period.

“I know my family got so tired of me talking about my trip, I had to watch myself,” he said with a smile. “I’m better about it now, but the first couple of weeks I caught myself saying, ‘Well, in Haiti,’ a lot.”

The opportunity for altruism was not lost on Medved. “I was thankful that Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative and the NRECA International Foundation gave me the opportunity to go to Haiti and generously supported me in my efforts to help out and give some hope to those less fortunate,” he said.

A couple of Medved’s co-workers at the cooperative echoed his sentiments. “I know a lot of times we travel to help others, just the fact of getting people’s power back on, that’s a great opportunity for all of us,” Lead Lineman Alan Moyers said. Lineman First Class Josh Hedrick agreed, noting that he thinks it’s a great program.

“I’m glad John got to go and the cooperative supported him. I think there will be a lot of other interest in work like this. It’s opened another door for us to help people in other countries. I think it’s something I’d like to do at some point in time,” Hedrick said.

Medved said he won’t soon forget the people or the experiences of this project.

“Everything about this trip, from the linemen I met from the United States who I didn’t know before, to the NRECA folks, to the friends that I made in Haiti, the Haitians and then, just to see the look of gratitude on people’s faces and the smiles of the children — for me, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

Medved also said the seventh cooperative principle — concern for community — was reaffirmed for him on this trip to Haiti. “The electric cooperative is very community-oriented, whether it’s the community you live in, or a community 1,000 miles away.”

 

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