By Erin Kelly
When the lights came on for the first time in a tiny mountain village in Guatemala last month, Zeb Birch watched a little girl’s grin grow as a lineworker lifted her up so she could take a turn flipping a switch at the schoolhouse.
“The pure joy in her face was the real deal,” said Birch, a journeyman lineman from Grand Valley Power in Grand Junction, Colorado, who helped electrify La Montanita de la Virgen, a village of about 250 people in southeastern Guatemala. “We were there for kids like her.”
Birch was one of 16 lineworkers from U.S. electric cooperatives who traveled to the Central American nation from Aug. 29 to Sept. 16 to bring electricity to 81 homes, a school and two churches as part of a project coordinated by NRECA International.
The lineworkers—12 from Oklahoma and four from Colorado—were the first group of volunteers to work on an NRECA International project in two years. COVID-19 restrictions temporarily halted the popular program. A second group of 15 volunteer lineworkers from Arkansas traveled to a different part of Guatemala near the Mexican border on Oct. 6 to electrify a community of about 300 people.
Brandon Shirey, a journeyman lineworker from Cimarron Electric Cooperative in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, said he couldn’t get enough of the breathtaking views he saw from the top of the power poles as he helped string line 10 to 11 hours a day in the rain.
“I kind of got lucky,” said Shirey, who was part of a team organized by the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives. “My section of line to build was at the higher elevation and it got higher and higher as we were building line up to the village.
“Every single pole I’d climb, I’d turn around and look over the valley and think, ‘this is beautiful, the best view yet.’ Then I’d climb the next pole and say the exact same thing. It was thick, lush trees. It wasn’t wheat fields, which is what we have here in Oklahoma.”
Matt Montgomery, a safety coordinator at Vinita-based Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative who volunteered once before in Guatemala, spent his time wiring adobe homes. Each house was provided four lightbulbs, two switches, two outlets and a main breaker panel.
“It was a unique experience to be inside every home,” he said. “It was eye-opening. We take for granted, being Americans, that we can flip a switch and there’s electricity and indoor plumbing and running water. They didn’t have any of those things, but I think those folks are very content and maybe happier without all the hustle and bustle that we have every day.”
The villagers dug holes and set up poles ahead of time to get ready for the volunteers to string line, install transformers and wire homes. The project used 77 poles, about 5.5 miles of line and six transformers.
“They put in so much work before we even showed up,” Birch said. “They really put their kids first to make their lives better.”
The children, who make up nearly a third of the village’s population, were eager to assist the volunteer lineworkers and bring them fresh bananas and pineapple.
“I gained a lot of helpers along the way,” Montgomery said. “I’d have them hold a light switch cover or something. They were just eager to help.”
During breaks in the work, the volunteers would play soccer or Frisbee with the kids.
“You don’t need to speak the same language to kick a soccer ball,” said Shirey, who would volunteer again “in a heartbeat.”
“As much as we touched those villagers’ lives, they touched us just as much,” he said. “The whole experience was incredible.”