Late this month, 17 volunteers from Ohio’s electric cooperatives will fly to Guatemala, take a two-hour ride up a very steep mountainside and spend 14 days helping to electrify the remote village of La Soledad. The project, undertaken through the auspices of the international program of the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association (NRECA), has had monetary and material support from all 24 of Ohio’s electric cooperatives and from employees and other friends of the statewide network of electric cooperatives. Just as important is that Ohio’s electric cooperatives are also supplying the manpower to do the job — Ten cooperatives are sending linemen, with three employees at the statewide office in Columbus also assisting.
Dwight Miller, Director of Safety and Loss Control at the statewide office and the manager for what’s being called “Project Ohio,” sat down with Country Living magazine (CLM) to discuss the details.
CLM: Who will Project Ohio help?
Miller: We’ll be electrifying the village of La Soledad, high in the mountains of Guatemala near the Mexican border. It’s part of the 20 percent of the population in Guatemala that’s never had electricity. We’ll be connecting a total of 72 homes and buildings to the electric grid, changing the lives of the 322 villagers who live there.
CLM: What work will be done?
Miller: Prior to our arrival, the 105 men of working age in the village will have banded together to purchase and place 70 electric poles. It’s a huge investment for them to buy those poles. They’re being trained to place them by men from neighboring villages who’ve worked on similar projects.
When we get there, we’ll build several miles of line and install six transformers. Our volunteers will be divided into four work crews, each of which will also have villagers assigned to help. Translation assistance from university students will be provided.
In addition, we’ll be breaking new ground in that we’ll be the first state of those working with NRECA International to complete wiring of all the homes. When we leave, all the lights should be on, with wiring installed safely to a minimum code. We’ll also be training a couple villagers to learn a skilled trade, which they can use to help neighboring villages in their own electrification projects. We will work with the local power company to help train them to understand whether wiring is safe before connecting any home to the grid.
CLM: What challenges will you face doing this work?
Miller: Just reaching the village is a challenge. It will take two full days to get there, including the ride up the mountain to reach the village itself. When I was there last year on our initial scouting trip, I was stunned by how rough the road was. It is really steep with one hairpin turn after another.
Once we’re there, the terrain and the altitude will also be challenging. The area surrounding the village is extremely mountainous, and it’s filled with a massive amount of rocks. The elevation of La Soledad is 8,800 feet, so the lower oxygen level will mean shortness of breath, especially while working, and there are many other possible physical problems, including altitude sickness. Physical fitness was a consideration in selection of the final volunteers. We’ve given everybody an exercise regimen to follow before the trip to get them ready for the really rugged work in high-altitude conditions.
The living conditions while we’re there will also be challenging. There’s no running water, and although they’re building a shower for us, the water will be cold. And we’ll all be sleeping on cots together in one or two rooms. Everyone’s been told to bring ear plugs, not just because of people snoring— there are also lots of barking dogs and a rooster that starts crowing at 4 a.m. I’m already very familiar with that rooster!
In general, our guys will be facing things they’ve never seen before, but they’ll do great. These guys know their stuff.
CLM: Will you be there when the lights go on?
Miller: Yes, that’s set to happen on what they’re calling Inauguration Day, for which the villagers of La Soledad plan to make a major celebration. Pat O’Louglin, the president and CEO of Ohio Rural Electric Cooperatives and Buckeye Power, will be on hand, and the CEOs of all of Ohio’s electric cooperatives have been invited. The villagers have already told us they’ll consider it a historic day.
CLM: What benefits will the townspeople enjoy when the work is completed?
Miller: There’s the obvious — increased comfort and ease in living. But there are things you don’t even think about — like the fact that the children who’d previously spent their days scouting for firewood and doing other work will now have time to
attend school. And the women won’t have to breathe in the toxic smoke from the wood-burning stoves they’ve been using to cook. In general, electrification also brings increased economic productivity and sanitation conditions.
CLM: Besides labor, how else have Ohio’s electric cooperatives helped?
Miller: Individual employees across the state have contributed,
either by cash or by donating a number of personal items for the villagers. In fact, a shipment of 22 skids weighing in at 18,500 pounds of donated goods is on its way to Guatemala right now. All in all, it’s been a joint unified effort by all of Ohio’s electric cooperatives.
CLM: What are your impressions of the villagers from your previous trip there?
Miller: They’re so burdened, and they make so little money, so our help will relieve their burden. All they’ve ever known is hard work. And they’re exactly the kind of people I enjoy helping — simple, God-fearing and extremely grateful for everything we’re doing for them. Their lives will be completely transformed, and I’m so happy we can help them with that.