Sixty years ago, before Lyndon B. Johnson was elected as president, the then senator spoke at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association meeting in Chicago, Ill. During that speech, Johnson emphasized that young people visit the nation’s capital to learn what the flag stands for and how government works. Following that address, the first official NRECA Youth Tour was organized. This month, Benton REA joins the tradition of rural cooperatives sending youth to Washington, D.C.
[blockquote quote="Everyone has a voice and it’s important to be an informed member of the community." source="Hannah Doyle, student at Delta High School" align="right" max_width="300px"]
Troy Berglund, Benton REA’s member relations manager, said the association participated in a smaller, regional youth tour several years ago, but interest in the program waned.
“There were some other co-ops in the state that were participating in the trip to D.C., so we talked to them about the experience,” Berglund said. “The national program is so popular, they have to max out the amount of students the NRECA can send.”
As a not-for-profit entity, Benton REA returns excess revenue back to its members in the form of capital credits at the end of each year. Some of those credits go unclaimed and are put in a fund used for the scholarships.
Berglund said the fund fluctuates between $10,000 to $20,000 each year, and last fall the board approved to fund both the scholarship program as well as the national Youth Tour for 2016.
“Because we’re member owned, we have a bigger involvement in the community than just reliable electricity. Helping in community events and anything that improves the quality of life in the communities that we serve, that’s what we want to get involved with because it affects our members,” said Berglund.
Benton REA started accepting Youth Tour applications last fall. The program was open to sophomores and juniors whose families are in the association’s district. Berglund, who was on the review committee, said they received six applications for this first year of participation.
“Each student would fill out an application with activities, awards and scholarships, community service activities and such. We select the final applicants, and the Benton REA panel conducts thorough interviews with students on why they want to attend,” said Berglund. “One of the things I looked at was an understanding that the student selected was representing the Benton REA co-op. So we were looking for a go-getter with leadership skills who had an aptitude for both government and politics.”
Benton REA found their candidate in 16-year-old Hannah Doyle, who’d been crossing her fingers that her local co-op would participate in the Youth Tour program.
She’d first heard about it as a freshman at Delta High after entering her school’s National History Day competition. Doyle had won a trip to the University of Maryland for her paper about William Henry Seward, the man who purchased Alaska.
“While I was there, I ran into a group from a Missouri co-op Youth Tour. They were talking about what a great experience [the national Youth Tour] was, and since I want to be a lawyer some day, I thought it’d be a great experience to learn how the government works,” Doyle said. “So I came back home and listened to hear if our local co-op participated.”
Doyle boarded a plane for the Youth Tour June 9. Benton REA’s marketing and communications coordinator, Elecia Walter, accompanied Doyle as a chaperone. Nationally, more than 1,700 students from various co-ops attended. During her week long, all-expense paid trip, Doyle planned to meet with other students as well as legislators.
“That’s definitely what I’m looking forward to the most,” Doyle said. “We’re meeting with Congressman Dan Newhouse and Sen. Maria Cantwell. They said to prepare a list of questions.”
Along with conversing with district and state representatives, Walter said there might be additional opportunities for Doyle to represent her local co-op.
“When we are in D.C., one student from each state will be asked to be on a Youth Council—which is a one-year opportunity to travel and meet up with other students. They’ll have the opportunity to meet more leaders, to go to the NRECA meeting, and meet at least one other time,” she said.
Following her return to Washington, Doyle will address Benton REA’s board and discuss her experience. Berglund said the board has already discussed sending up to two students and a chaperone next year. Information about the 2016 Youth Tour will go out in the fall newsletter, Benton Ruralite Magazine and be on the company’s website.
“I think it’s important to be involved in the community. Everyone has a voice and it’s important to be an informed member of the community and know how the government works,” Doyle said.
Doyle added that she’d be willing to talk to local students about the program in hopes of generating more interest so that other students can experience the inner workings of their government and learn about their nation’s history.
“This trip is an opportunity for Hannah and other students to step out of their comfort zone and meet other students with common interests, learn about their government and co-ops and bring it back home,” Walter said. “One of the main intentions was to educate our youth and bring them back so they can be leaders back home.”
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