Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) thanks trustee Parrish for 12 years of steady leadership
Electric cooperatives have experienced challenging times in the past 12 years. Increasingly active storm seasons, evolving technologies, and energy policy changes all generated turbulence for electric cooperative leadership across the nation.
Fortunately for WEC members and employees, Donna Parrish always provided a sense of stability while representing District 2 on the WEC board of trustees.
Now Parrish faces a new set of personal challenges. After living near Ashford all of her life, she relocated to the Birmingham area in late spring. She attended her last WEC board meeting in May.
“I need to downsize. I’ve had 41 acres and a big house to keep up,” she says. “None of my children are ever going to want to live on the farm. It has gotten to be more than I can manage. I need to be near one of my girls. My Birmingham daughter, Kelli, seemed to be the best option.”
WEC members and employees, though, will feel her influence for years to come — just like they will miss the “calming grandmother effect” Parrish says she always aimed to provide.
“We are a better cooperative today because of her calm, wise leadership,” says WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “I also appreciate her being so supportive of our member-centric culture, our communication efforts, and our community involvement. We will certainly miss her!”
A Tumultuous Start
Parrish knew a lot about the inner workings of WEC when she became a trustee in August 2009. Her husband, James, served as the District 2 trustee the six years prior.
“He loved people. He had to take his Credentialed Cooperative Director classes, and he had to go to a lot of meetings,” Parrish says. “Normally I went with him, so I got to know a lot of the co-op people. I learned a lot just from sitting in some meetings with him.”
Tragedy initiated Donna Parrish’s term on the board though. Her husband passed away from a massive heart attack in August 2009, and the trustees selected her to finish out his term. The move created a whirlwind for Parrish.
“We buried James on Sunday. They appointed me on Monday. The first board meeting was Tuesday night,” she says. “Kelli had to come with me. I was walking around in a daze. I don’t remember anything that was said that night.”
Despite the overwhelming start, Parrish ran for election to the District 2 post in October 2009 and won. While she had to learn the more technical aspects of managing a power provider, she made a quick impact.
“District 3 trustee John Clark told me about a year later, ‘The first few months that you came to the board meetings, I could tell you were just struggling. But after a while it just clicked, and you hit the ground running,’” Parrish recalls.
“I felt like I had the people skills and the public relations skills, because I don’t meet strangers,” she says. “I had a background in finance and accounting. It was the wires and transformers that posed the biggest challenge. All I knew about those were seeing the poles and the transformers when I rode down the road.”
Work that Matters
Parrish found the work rewarding — so much so that she ran for 3 more full terms. Helping WEC navigate and implement technological changes proved to be some of the most fascinating work for her.
“We had smart meters when I got on the board, but we have upgraded to a smarter meter,” she says. “The technology allows us to communicate better. That allows us to plan better. It allows us to work outages in a more efficient way. The new outage management center in Hartford was built, and that was a big thing.”
The 12 years she served were not without challenges from nature, either. Parrish still marvels at WEC’s response to Hurricane Michael in October 2018, the third-strongest hurricane to hit the contiguous United States. The storm caused about 18,000 power outages as its eye wall passed over the eastern side of WEC’s territory.
“It was amazing to me to watch the co-op management and employees come together to make things happen,” Parrish says. “One example of that: We had about 300 men out at the Houston County Farm Center. We had to feed them. We had to provide them with places to sleep and shower — meet their daily needs.
“One night I went out to the farm center. Those guys started coming in, and they had food ready. They never missed a need, and that’s because people on the inside — the office staff — stepped up to help the outside people as they got the lights back on.”
Parrish also embraced several of WEC’s community development initiatives. Those include Broadband for the Wiregrass, a partnership with Troy Cable, which will expand true high-speed internet to about 8,000 members by the summer of 2024. For many, that will constitute their first access to high-speed internet.
The Operation Round Up Charitable Foundation launched on Parrish’s watch, as well. Through a few cents from most members each month, the foundation raises more than $120,000 per year — which it doles out in grants to those with emergency needs, schools, medical clinics, first responders and more.
Additionally, ORU funds more than 20 scholarships a year.
“To see the difference that’s made in the lives of people who have needs, to see the students who have gone to lineman school or other educational ventures, that’s been a big impact on our community,” Parrish says.
The most fulfilling work, though, came from helping members overcome any obstacles they encountered.
“One of the most inspiring things is going on social media and seeing all the positive comments from members about how we help them, how we were able to meet their needs,” she says. “That’s made me feel like it’s worth all the hours I spent.”
A New Journey
Even though it has been difficult to say goodbye, Parrish remains calm and at peace about her decision.
“I’ve never lived anywhere else. I’ve never been to church anywhere else but Bluff Springs Baptist Church,” she says. “This has always been home. I know the way that God has opened doors that this is the time.”
As Parrish embraces her new journey, WEC also charts a new path. WEC CEO Les Moreland remains confident that WEC will be in good hands, thanks to Parrish’s enduring legacy.
“Anyone who ever worked with Donna Parrish has learned a tremendous amount from her,” he says. “She always provided a good perspective on things, and the WEC leadership and her fellow board members will always be mindful of that as we move forward. We thank our members for trusting her to serve them for 12 years, and we know they will select another great trustee to represent District 2 this year.”