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Meet the four linemen who share their experiences in Guatemala

By Ann Thelen

Before Iowa’s four electric cooperative linemen went to Central America, they had some idea what it would be like in the small rural village of Salina 7 Cerros in north-central Guatemala. Once there, however, it was beyond anything they had ever imagined or experienced.

The impact of a single light bulb in what would otherwise be a kerosene- or candle-lit one-room home or classroom will truly be a brighter future for these residents. And for the linemen who were part of this journey, the power of electricity will touch their hearts and minds just a little bit more when they flip on the light switches in their homes. The co-op principle of concern for community – even when it’s a community 2,500 miles away – unites us all.

We recently sat down with Bob Ruby (Access Energy Cooperative), Mat Kilgore (Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative), Quentin Fisher (Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative) and Mike Berkenpas (North West Rural Electric Cooperative) to hear their firsthand accounts of this life-changing experience.

When you arrived in the village, what surprised you the most?

Ruby: The dire living conditions and how happy they were.

Kilgore: They didn’t have shoes, and they were drinking water out of the creek, which was the same water they used to bathe in and wash clothes and dishes. They had virtually nothing, but to see the kids always so happy and playing, it was amazing.

Fisher: I couldn’t believe how happy people were for having as little as they have. Honestly, they are probably happier than anyone I know in the U.S. and are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I always felt safe around them, and they were so trustworthy.

How did you get to the village every day?

Kilgore: The drive each day was miserable. We stayed in Playa Grande, and it took 1.5 hours each way to get to the jobsite. We had about 15 minutes of smooth roads, but the rest were incredibly bumpy and bounced us all around. Some of us had to take motion sickness medication every single day.

Berkenpas: Going over the bridges was the worst. Each way, our first obstacle was a metal bridge going over the Chixoy River. It had huge holes in it, and a motorcycle had even fallen through it.

 Ruby: It’s every person for themselves on the roads. Pickup trucks would be filled with 30-40 people in the back and hanging over the sides. You had to constantly avoid running into another vehicle.

Describe what schools were like in the village.

Fisher: The schools were not good, and sometimes their teacher wasn’t there. Students only attend for a half-day, three times a week. There are two rooms – the younger kids are on one side and the older ones on the other. One teacher goes back and forth between the rooms. When the kids aren’t in school, they work and take care of siblings. My co-op’s employees donated money so that we were able to buy a sound speaker for their school. We had enough money left over to buy 175 pairs of shoes for the kids. Thanks to donations from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin electric co-ops, each student also received a backpack full of school supplies.

What are the living conditions like for the villagers?

Ruby: Most of the homes are one-room huts with dirt floors. The women cook meals over a wood fire, sitting right in the middle of a dirt floor. They were always sweeping the dirt floors or washing clothes in the creek. The immediate household and right outside were clean, but there was a lot of garbage everywhere. Electricity will change their lives, whether it’s being able to plug in an appliance or have more sanitary conditions.

One day, we were in a hut wiring for electricity, and a woman came in with a backpack and hung it on a nail. A few moments later, she brought in another backpack and did the same thing. We saw the backpacks moving. When we peeked inside the backpacks, each one had a baby in it. The babies’ cribs were those backpacks.

Kilgore: Ninety-nine percent of the homes were the same; dirt floors with thatched roofs. A couple of people had slightly better homes with concrete floors and more rooms – one was a farmer, and another man owned a tractor that powered a generator to grind corn for food.

When you got back to Iowa from Guatemala, what did you tell your families about the experience?

Berkenpas: Hands down, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. To have 12 linemen from three states work together for the first time so seamlessly was incredible. We knew our mission was to help the villagers by bringing electricity to their homes for the first time. But the villagers impacted our lives as much as we impacted theirs. It made me realize how much we all take for granted when you see people so happy, yet they have virtually nothing.

Kilgore: When I left home, I took three 50-pound bags, a carry-on and a backpack. I showed my kids all the stuff I was taking with me. I came home with only a backpack and small carry-on because nearly all my clothes, shoes and tools were given to the people in the village. I was able to tell my kids what it was like for the people there, and why it’s important to give back to others when given the chance.

Berkenpas: I gave away almost everything that I took with me, too. One guy wanted my shoes, but I gave him my boots instead.

What was the toughest part of the trip?               

Fisher: Besides the drive each day, it rained several inches every night when we were there, so we were lucky that it didn’t delay out work during the day. It was extremely hot and humid. We also had medicine with us for intestinal and digestive issues. Because we weren’t used to their food – from the way they stored it to how it was cooked – most of us ended up sick.

Ruby: Even though every one of the 12 guys got sick to some extent, not one of them would stay back from working on the project. Every one of us wanted to work as hard as we could to help this village.

Kilgore: The hardest part of the trip was working in the heat, which was made worse by so much humidity. We had a few guys end up with heat exhaustion coupled with some stomach issues.

If given the opportunity, would you go on another international project?

All (without a second of hesitation): Yes!

Kilgore: To work together to give these people a brighter future is amazing. Electricity is something we take for granted in America. To give that to another country is just awesome. If we can instill confidence in one kid – and if that’s all we got – it was all worth it.

In unison, these guys said they made friends for life with the fellow linemen from Illinois and Wisconsin. In fact, the 12 of them are planning to get together next summer.

Kilgore adds, “We made a brotherhood for life with these other guys. It’s hard to describe the depth of our friendship. It was amazing how fast the bond happened.”

Ann Thelen is the editor of Living with Energy in Iowa.

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