Community Connections

Wiregrass Electric Cooperative Youth Tour delegates learn about government from a panel of state and federal legislators.

After an event filled with presentations and conversations at Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) headquarters, Youth Tour delegate Alex Hall recalls the most eye-opening moment of the day occurred when visibility was at its highest.

“My favorite part was going up in the bucket truck because I have never experienced anything like that before,” the Geneva County High School junior says. “The buckets are a lot smaller than they look. Once you get in there, you’re kind of packed. It was really cool.”

Hall and nine other area high school juniors came together on April 12 to take part in a local version of the Youth Tour program.WEC organized the event after the coronavirus pandemic caused the cancellation of the annual Montgomery and WashingtonYouth Tours this year.

“We did not want the coronavirus to be a hindrance to the amazing experiences that the Youth Tour program provides,” says WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “Youth Tour builds great, informed leaders for the future — leaders who will better their communities, potentially now and certainly in the future.”

The local tour allowed the 2021 delegates to become enlightened on a variety of subjects. They learned about governmental policy and procedures from state and federal legislators, about leadership and character development from a local economic official, and about WEC from a variety of cooperative personnel.

“It was a lot of fun,” Hall says. “It really is an enlightening tour.”

Legislators Provide Perspective

During the Montgomery Youth Tour, delegates from across Alabama hear from the state legislators who help govern their areas. WEC coordinated with Sen. Donnie Chesteen and Reps. Paul Lee and Jeff Sorrells to provide the same experience in the local event.

WEC Engineering and Operations Technology Specialist Greg Bradley, right, demonstrates how WEC manages the power grid through specialized software.

Lee offered insight into an elected official’s life when the state legislature is in session and noted some of the important bills legislators have discussed in 2021. A few delegates asked questions regarding education, which Chesteen, a retired educator who is vice-chair of the Senate’s Education Policy Committee, answered.

“I was able to talk to Donnie Chesteen a little bit about the future of education,” says Hall, who plans to pursue a degree in English education. “He talked to me personally about education, so I can learn from that conversation.”

As an added bonus, U.S. Rep. Barry Moore also spoke to the participants — typically a feature of the Washington Youth Tour event, which only three delegates experience each year.

Moore offered some advice for the future leaders to heed as they continue their education.

“Do the next right thing,” he says. “Life can be complex and complicated, but the next right thing is the next move. A lot of decisions are small, but over time, decisions determine destiny. Wrong decisions can take you one direction in life, and tiny right decisions can take you to a totally different spot.”

On the ‘Balcony’

WEC apprentice lineman Troy Wise prepares to demonstrate a task as Northside Methodist Academy junior and Youth Tour delegate Ragan Jimmerson watches.

Youth Tour participants added to Moore’s advice when MelanieHill, Southeast AlabamaWorks! program manager, offered a leadership and character development seminar. Hill encouraged this year’s participants to be “balcony people,” based on a book of the same title written by Joyce Heatherley.

“These people are clapping and cheering you on like they are at a theater,” she says. “Balcony people encourage people genuinely.”

Hill says projecting an encouraging spirit comes easier to some, but it is a characteristic everyone would be well-served to develop.

“You must be intentional about this,” she says.

Hill also urged the participants to carry a positive mindset into any task they approach.

“Attitude at the beginning of a task determines so much,” she says. “Attitude can give you a winner’s perspective.”

Cooperative Cares

The most enriching details learned during the event concerned WEC’s operations and the cooperative’ approach to community, some of the delegates note.

linemen showing students their work“It’s a lot more about community than I realized,” says Laura Kate Meadows, a Rehobeth High School student. “I just thought you paid your bills and got your power. It’s really not. It’s about community connections.”

The delegates gained that knowledge at various stops along a walking tour of the WEC corporate headquarters. During a visit to the dispatch center, delegates learned about WEC’s commitment to implementing technological advances. Those advances allow WEC to recognize and correct outages more quickly.

Delegates also caught a glimpse into how WEC linemen work safely and efficiently through a demonstration with the Education Power Station, a trailer that contains examples of power grid infrastructure like utility poles and underground transformers.

booth set up for Youth Tour banquetKimbro informed participants about WEC’s approach to community development. He stressed that efforts like Operation Round Up, the construction of a speculative manufacturing building, and several educational programs ensure that communities in the WEC footprint maintain a strong education system, a growing economy, and a high quality of life.

“The co-op is here just to help the people. It’s not here to make a profit for themselves,” notes Clay Smith, of Slocomb High School. “It’s to help people like me who live in rural areas.”

As an example of WEC’s commitment to the region, each delegate received a $1,500 scholarship to assist in future education costs.

“We’re thankful our board of directors decided to redirect money that would have been spent on the Montgomery and Washington Youth Tours toward these scholarships,” Kimbro says. “An investment in education represents an investment in the future. A well-rounded and well-educated workforce attracts more job opportunities and improves quality of life.”

Tour of the Future?

With everyone enjoying the local version of the Youth Tour program, Kimbro can envision making it a more permanent fixture in the life of the cooperative.

“We always did a Youth Tour banquet following the Montgomery event,” he says. “Because of the success of this, we may alter the banquet to include some of these elements in some way. Let’s give our cooperative credit for being bold and moving forward.”

Delegates say they would encourage future high school juniors to apply.

“Highly recommend it,” Meadows says.

“By the end, I’ve made nine new friends,” Hall adds. “It lived up to my expectations and probably higher.”

2021 Youth Tour Delegates

2021 youth tour delegates

Geneva County High School

  • Collier Bradshaw
  • Alex Hall

Northside Methodist Academy

  • Ragan Jimmerson

Providence Christian School

  • Emily Pologruto

Rehobeth High School

  • Reid Holland
  • Lottie Lewis
  • Laura Kate Meadows
  • Ashley Morsey

Samson High School

  • Braxton Brooks

Slocomb High School

  • Clay Smith