by Diane Willis, Special Correspondent
Bringing power and light to people who’ve never had it before may not be a miracle, but it is a mission.
And it was a historic mission that 28 rural electric cooperative linemen and four field supervisors from across Indiana accomplished this summer. They brought power to the people in isolated villages high in the Frontier Zone of western Guatemala, near the Mexican border.
The mission transformed the lives of more than 1,000 Guatemalan men, women and children. But, in unexpected ways, it also changed the lives of the Hoosier linemen who volunteered and undertook the challenge.
The work wasn’t easy — even for linemen trained and accustomed to facing challenges, danger and the unexpected every day. But there are no jungles in Indiana; no working above the clouds in 7,000-foot-high, unmapped mountains; no stringing 1,200-foot spans of electric wire across gorges, without paved roads or bucket trucks or machinery. Indiana linemen restore power after ice storms, tornadoes and hurricanes. It’s part of their job. But this work assignment was unlike anything they had ever experienced.
From the start, project leaders Gayvin Strantz and Terry Adkins, with the Job Training and Safety Department of the Indiana Statewide Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, were candid about the volunteer project. “It’s going to be the toughest job we’ve ever done,” they told the linemen and their wives beforehand.
“The working conditions are like nothing you’ve ever seen. All the work will be by hand. You won’t just get into your truck and drive to the site. You’ll climb mountains straight up or straight down. There’s no level ground. I’m not guaranteeing you much,” Strantz emphasized, “just plenty of work, a place to sleep and food to eat. And you’d better like to eat rice and beans and corn tortillas. But our Number One goal is safety: 29 men will go in, and 29 men will come out. That’s our promise. You’re like family to us.”
Fifty linemen volunteered for the slots that ultimately were filled by 28 current linemen. In addition to Strantz and Adkins, Randy Price, CEO at Carroll White REMC and a former lineman himself, and Dennis Weiss, CEO at Kankakee Valley REMC and an engineer, made the journey serving as field supervisors.
“This is a mission trip for me,” said Rob Hunger, a lineman with Southeastern Indiana REMC, before embarking. “The donation is me, and I’m going to try to be a good worker for them. It’s what I’m good at.”
It took nearly a year to plan and mobilize the equipment, material, supplies and manpower needed for one month of work 1,800 miles from Indiana. Even the logistics were a challenge. There was no potable drinking water. Fuel and basic supplies were a two-hour drive away on treacherous, unpaved roads. Working conditions were primitive — work was done by hand and even material was hauled in by hand. A hospital for emergency medical care was far away.
So what was the result? The project forever changed the lives of the Guatemalan villagers themselves. And the Hoosiers Power the World mission also made history. For the first time, a delegation of Indiana linemen served a worldwide community. The project became the biggest and was one of the toughest projects ever undertaken and completed for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s International Program, which initiated the project.
The NRECA International Program, begun under the invitation of President John F. Kennedy and celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, has now provided safe and reliable electric service to more than 100 million people in 40-plus countries worldwide.
The numbers of the Hoosier mission tell the story. Working 10-hour days, the Indiana linemen — along with the help of local villagers — built more than 20 miles of power lines, at times digging holes and setting poles by hand. By the end of four weeks, the linemen brought safe, reliable electricity to between 150 and 175 homes, businesses and churches, linking families in these mountainous jungles to the power grid. But it was more than stringing power lines — they left an imprint that will redirect people’s lives there forever in a place where living conditions are harsh and primitive.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Strantz, manager of the statewide association’s Job Training, Safety and Loss Control. “There are plenty of people in this country who need help, and we’re there to provide it. We live in the greatest country in the world with more resources to help our own. But down there, they don’t have those resources. … We gave something to people that don’t have the opportunity to get it any other way. If we wouldn’t have gone in there and helped them, there’s no doubt in my mind this project wouldn’t have gotten done.”
The people are Mayan and Quiché Indians who eke out a subsistence living in the Cuchumatanes Mountains, the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America. Many of these indigenous people fled to the mountains during Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war. Villagers here grow corn and some of the finest coffee beans in the world, cultivating every available scrap of rocky soil, planting the crops literally up and down the nearly 90-degree sides of the mountains. With dirt floors, and without running water, plumbing, heat or light (except from firewood, candles or kerosene) in their homes, these rural Guatemalans earn far less than the country average of $4,500 a year.
The area the linemen served is one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries in Central and Latin America. Having electricity will make it possible for the most isolated of the villages to build its first school. It will mean families can see after the sun goes down, and children can study at night without candles or kerosene lamps. It will mean women won’t to have to cook over an open wood stove or walk for miles to grind their corn. It will mean farmers can earn more to support their families by raising more crops and processing their coffee beans themselves. And electricity is safer and less costly than kerosene or wood — costing roughly $20 a year per family.
Each day during the project, the Guatemalan villagers worked side-by-side with the linemen. “If it wouldn’t have been for the Guatemalan people helping us, this project would never have gotten done. They were amazing,” said Adkins, senior loss control/risk management specialist with Indiana Statewide. “They work just to survive, just to live, day by day.”
Almost three out of four children under age 5 in Guatemala’s mountains are malnourished, according to the World Bank. The country has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, and the highest rate in the Western Hemisphere. It’s those children’s faces that the linemen remember.
“In the end, it’s about the future — the children of Guatemala. That’s why we were there,” Strantz added. “Deep down, we know they’re going to have a better life. None of us will ever forget what we did in Guatemala and what we had an opportunity to achieve. And truthfully, when we stop and take a look at it, God gave us that opportunity to achieve what we achieved.”
When the lights came on
Sharp images stay with all of us who went to Guatemala. The hard life is reflected in the faces, like that of 59-year-old Yasly Yasely Velasquez. We knew her as “Abuela” or “grandmother.” She invited us into the simple shack where she cooked over a smoky woodfire, and pointed to her lungs and her red, irritated eyes. “The smoke burns my eyes and my daughters’ eyes all the time. We all cough and have trouble breathing,” she said. “But we’re too poor to do anything else.”
A light bulb, “solo bombio,” had been set in the socket for days, waiting for the big moment. On Aug. 27, Abuela’s house became the first one to be electrified on the mountain. Her children and grandchildren laughed and clapped when the light bulb glowed for the first time. She stood proudly by, her hands almost in prayer.
Seeing the grandchildren gathered around when the lights came on was unforgettable for LaGrange County REMC line foreman Troy Sams. “Man, this is worth it all; it’s worth everything. Every bug bite I got, every sliver I got in my hand,” said Sams.
Many villagers were skeptical at first. They had been betrayed four years ago when a company promised to bring them electricity, took their money and didn’t return. But the linemen built trust. Randy Price, CEO of Carroll White REMC, noted, “When people see us, they see that we stand by our word.… We don’t go home until it’s done.”
“Thanks to you, and thanks to God that you are here to bring electricity to our homes,” said Osciel Martinez, the pastor of an evangelical church in the largest village, Hoya Blanca. “We have been waiting for years. It’s a miracle you have come to us.”
In the final week of the project, linemen’s hearts were especially touched by a family of four. The father was epileptic and often unable to work. The mother was blind. With their two young children they lived in a one-room bare shack with only a fire pit and a bed.
The 8-year-old daughter stayed home from school to cook and care for her parents and little brother. None had shoes or a change of clothes. When the linemen learned that, they built a table from spare crates and pooled their money to buy clothing and shoes. They also donated $100 so the family could pay off its mortgage and not be evicted. The local church then volunteered to pay for the family’s electricity.
“You could see a tear or two coming down the cheeks of those linemen,” said Strantz. “Now linemen are pretty tough. They’re a unique breed, but to see them shed a tear or two, you know you’re tugging on people’s hearts when that happens. That was one of the many things that reminded me how rewarding this job is, and how lucky I was to be able to go down there and represent these guys and lead these guys,” he added.
Back home, there was plenty of support. In addition to sending the men, Indiana’s rural electric cooperatives donated equipment, materials and gear to not only bring power, but to ensure local Guatemalans will be trained to service and maintain the power.
“Thirty-two volunteers went, but they carried the passion of 39 rural electric cooperatives that serve in this state,” said Tracie Trent, training and youth programs specialist at Indiana Statewide. “Everybody contributed, whether you were on the ground in Guatemala actually putting up those lines, or you were back in Indiana holding down the fort,” she added.
The linemen themselves said the experience was life changing.
“It was very humbling to be with people who appreciate the small things in life — they were ecstatic to have just a light bulb and an outlet,” said Craig Smart, a lineman from Jasper County REMC. Helping them help themselves is something he’ll never forget. “There aren’t too many guys around who can say, ‘I remember putting power in for the first time in someone’s life.’ And now I can,” he added.
“It was really overwhelming to see how grateful they were. It was more special than I could ever have imagined,” said Warren Shuppert, a lineman from RushShelby Energy. “They have so very little, they are incredibly poor — but they don’t know that. They have joy.”
Beyond base camp in Hoya Blanca, the linemen worked in three villages: Las Cuevas, Las Nubes, and Nueva Esperanza. The rhythm of the days carried familiar sights and sounds: women swept the packed mud in and outside their homes. Chickens grazed. An occasional pig was tied to the side of the dirt road. Torrential rains washed out roads. Men tended coffee seedlings. Everyone waved and called out “Buenos dias” to the American strangers in their midst. And morning and afternoon, children waited to greet the linemen, or watched them work and, like children everywhere, relished the candy and stickers and Colts mini-footballs the linemen gave them.
Here, where everything is hard-scrabble, children trekked miles to a school, and their mothers and grandmothers were bent double with firewood or huge sacks of corn on their backs. Men and boys wielded machetes with lightning speed and accuracy, hacking trails out of the jungle or clearing the way to string miles of primary and secondary cable across a half mile of mountain slopes and canyons.
It’s a place where the beauty can be breathtaking and the terrain lethal — where the slippery, treacherous, broken rock road skirts the mountain sides, then twists and doubles back on itself, making blind turns with no room for error. The lush mountain sides below are too steep and too unforgiving — too vertical for even a telescopic view of the valley floor below.
It’s a place where the odds have been insurmountable for so long, that no one would string power lines. But for Indiana’s rural electric co-ops and linemen, this kind of a challenge is also a way to pay it forward, to give back. They see beyond what is … to what can be.
Co-op linemen see themselves as a brotherhood and their work as a calling. But the linemen who tackled this challenge are also sky cowboys. Climbing the 30-foot poles at the edge of mountain sides, above or in the midst of the clouds, they experienced what few of us can.
“It was beautiful, just awe-inspiring to watch the clouds over those trees just below,” said Sams after climbing and wiring a pole that overlooked a gorge at an elevation of 6,500 feet. “On one side of the pole, you’re 30 feet off the ground. Down the other side, you’re 600 feet or more off the ground. Never have I thought I would climb a pole above the clouds.”
The first day on the mountain, Sams and Jerry Applegate, a lineman from Clark County REMC, realized the pole was shifting beneath them. It hadn’t been set deep enough, so it was leaning two feet off-center at the top. Down below, fellow linemen and villagers quickly righted the pole, piling boulders and soil around the base.
“You kind of just tell yourself, ‘If I’ve survived the ice storms, I can survive being on this pole.’ It’s just a mental game you play with yourself,” said Applegate, just moments after climbing down. “You just keep going. And I just pray about it.”
The terrain was always a challenge. So was the altitude at first, especially since an average lineman, with gear and tools, carried 250-275 pounds up each pole. “I took long, deep breaths, because I don’t care what job you’re doing, when you get tense, it changes your breathing. So you’re already in a wrestling match as it tries to beat you. So we take deep breaths and have a goal where we’re going. We do whatever it takes to get the job done,” said Sams.
Coming full circle
The last morning, several of us climbed to the roof of the base camp compound, waiting for the first signs of dawn over the mountain tops. It was dark and silent, except for the river that rushed below and the roosters that vied with each other across the valleys all around.
The stars were splayed like diamonds against the sky. But one thing was different. A few more lights shone against the flanks of the mountain side … lights in homes that the week before had never known electricity, in a part of the world where electricity could not even be considered a luxury. It simply wasn’t available.
In 1935, less than 10 percent of America’s farms had electricity. Then rural electrification arrived. That same year, Indiana became one of the first states to organize electric co-ops and turn on the lights in rural areas.
Now, 75 years later, that piece of history comes full circle. For three isolated mountain villages in Guatemala, our past is now their future — thanks to Indiana’s electric co-ops and the 32 Hoosiers who tackled a once-in-a-lifetime experience and gave the gift of power and light.
Diane Willis is a freelance reporter and independent film producer from Indianapolis. She and her husband, Clyde Lee, own Lee/Willis Communications. Both are former co-anchors of WRTV news, the Indianapolis ABC affiliate.