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Umatilla Electric Cooperative Linemen Help Bring Electricity to Villages in Guatemala

HERMISTON — Two Umatilla Electric Cooperative linemen answered the co-op’s farthest call-out yet when they volunteered with the Oregon Empowers Foundation in March to bring power for the first time to a rural village in Guatemala.

Matt Ellis and Travis Deming joined seven other Oregon linemen, a project engineer and three translators on the 3,500-mile trip to the village of Ventura near Jalapa in the mountainous southeastern part of the country.

Other volunteers hailed from such electric cooperatives as Oregon Trail near Baker City, Harney in Hines, Hood River, Lane in Eugene, Coos-Curry in Port Orford and Consumers Power Inc. in Philomath.

The crew spent two weeks on the ground with local linemen, bringing 2.5 miles of primary and secondary power lines and poles. They electrified 35 homes, businesses and community buildings, wiring four light bulbs and two outlets in each home.

“A neat experience was meeting the guys down there who do the same job we do up here,” said Ellis, a 12-year lineman.

Safety practices, pole-climbing technique, tools and line assembly components available differed vastly from what he’s accustomed to.

“It makes me think about how all the electric co-ops first started, bringing power to rural America,” he said. “It was the little guys, the farmers and other people who weren’t in the cities coming together to bring in power to their communities. The work got us back to our roots, too, the line roots — no bucket trucks, all climbing, hard, manual labor.”

Though crew members stayed in a hotel in Jalapa, spending their days in the subsistent farming Ventura community came with its own culture shock — no plumbing, not even a privy. They had to haul water from distant groundwater sources and deal with almost nonexistent cell service, houses with dirt floors and few material possessions while working where most kids attended school until they were only eight years old and where girls married at 14, with children at their heels.

Deming, a lineman of 20 years, described the community as tight-knit.

“What caught me the most was these people had absolutely nothing, but they had each other and they enjoyed what they had,” he said. “It’s kind of what it should be all about … Everybody there held each other all the time. Even kids would hold hands or have their arms around each other walking down the street.”

The children had never seen soccer balls or Frisbees, which the crew brought to hand out.

Deming wished he knew Spanish so he could have spoken with the villagers directly.

“They’re common working people and you have a bond in that,” he said.

Ellis interacted with one villager who had two children the same ages as his own, six and four. He asked the translator to ask the father what he was most excited about now that he had power. The man replied that he had been saving for a computer so his kids could continue online schooling.

That struck a chord with Ellis.

“We truly got to know the heart and soul of this community and felt like we really got to understand and got to know those hardworking people down there,” he said.

Deming described how, near the end of their time in Ventura, a group of young girls gathered purple and green flowers from bushes the crew had cut down to make way for powerlines. The girls lined the road out of the village with bouquets. The linemen were later told that this was a gesture of thanks.

“Stuff like that means more than someone handing me a certificate or talking on the radio,” Deming said. “They didn’t have anything, but they took the time to cut those flowers and put them there.”

Both men said they would go again.

Oregon Empowers Guatemala was accomplished in cooperation with the National Rural Cooperative Association (NRECA) International and the Oregon Rural Cooperative Association (ORECA).

According to its website, Oregon Empowers is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization funded by the donations of some of Oregon’s electric cooperatives, national cooperative partners and member-owners and employees.

Source: Hermiston Herald