A team from Oregon’s electric co-ops raced against the clock to bring electricity to a remote Guatemalan village, changing the lives of all involved

By Ted Case

Let there be light! The Oregon Empowers team wired 40 homes in Ventura, Guatemala, with lights and outlets. Photos by Mike Teegarden

The road to the village of Ventura, Guatemala, was rutted and nearly impass- able. Eventually, it brought us to the shadow of a volcano, where the Oregon Empowers team of nine lineworkers and an engineer—all volunteers from Oregon electric cooperatives—toiled away to bring electricity to villagers living without power.

A small group of us traveled there on behalf of Oregon Empowers, the philanthropic arm of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Our mission was to engage in village service projects and participate in a ceremony celebrating the arrival of electricity. By the time the Oregon Empowers group arrived, the crew—working in collaboration with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s international pro- gram—had worked two weeks straight to meet their goal of energizing 40 homes.

We quickly learned their hard reality. With few tools or equipment commonly used at home—such as bucket trucks—they followed in the footsteps of the heroic 1930s lineworkers who brought electricity to rural America by sheer force of will, climbing poles and stringing wire from dawn to dusk.

Lineworkers had to navigate fields, ditches, coffee plantations and banana trees while pulling wire for the new service.

The Oregon lineworkers, however, had challenges even their forefathers did not face: working 3,000 miles from home on an impossibly tight schedule and with a language barrier. Not a single member of the Oregon crew, which included Pioneer Utility Resources photojournalist Mike Teegarden, was conversationally fluent in Spanish.

However, the villagers—equally motivated, if not more so—joined in to help, using their hands to dig postholes in the nearly impenetrable volcanic soil and wielding impressive machetes to help clear the thick vegetation from rights-of-way.

After spending a few days in this rugged remote area, it was clear the people of Ventura were not only gracious, they are incredibly hardworking.

They are also seemingly forgotten. While only a dusty half-hour drive from the bustling well-lit city of Jalapa, the villagers of Ventura are far too isolated and remote for their own government to bring them electricity. The Oregon Empowers team was their last hope for modern conveniences— such as light and refrigeration—that most Americans have enjoyed for nearly a century.

The future of the village was omni- present. Children roamed everywhere, shadowing the lineworkers and booting the soccer ball with them during water breaks.

During a tour of the village, we visited the home of a proud mother of three children who makes less money each day
in the coffee fields than most American consumers spend daily on a Starbucks latte. Her cinderblock home with dirt floors had the persistent smell of smoke from the open fire in the kitchen, but now it was wired with four lightbulbs and 2 wall fixtures.

As she gave us a tour, there was a sense of anticipation as the crew prepared to flip the breaker. We asked the woman what she was looking forward to most about having electricity. She wasn’t sure, she said, adding with raw emotion, “I’ve been waiting for it for so long.”

The breaker was flipped, and we watched the family stare at an illuminated lightbulb like some magical beacon. This moment, which transcended any language barrier, was repeated throughout the village over the next few days.

Machetes are a common tool for Guatemalan men—and a cherished gift for Oregon lineworkers.

“We became close with the residents there, and you could see it on their faces that they were very appreciative of what we were doing,” says Charlie Tracy, the team’s leader and director of engineering at Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative. “Until you are there and meet and speak with these wonderful people, you know this will change their lives forever—having something like electricity that Americans take for granted. It gives you a lot of perspective.”

On the last day in the village, the final home was energized, and officials from the local municipality held a ceremony to celebrate the electrification of the village. The Oregon crew appeared both exhausted and exhilarated, cognizant that while their feat of engineering was only a small dent in the nearly 1 billion people worldwide still without access to electricity, they had made a powerful connection far from home.

After the speeches, the village families received donated hot plates and water filters, a harbinger of how electricity will change all aspects of their lives. Before the Oregonians left on the long road out of the town, the Guatemalans gave each crew member a gift that, while not suitable for an airplane’s overhead bin, signified their ultimate respect for what the team had accomplished. They gave them all machetes.

Project Volunteers

  • Jeff Pillow, Travis Smart, Charles Tracy—Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative
  • Matt Ellis, Travis Deming—Umatilla Electric Cooperative
  • Shawn Foultner—Consumers Power Inc.
  • Wyatt Shelley—Harney Electric Cooperative
  • Jason Sherman—Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative
  • Clinton Curtis—Hood River Electric & Internet Co-op
  • Matt Smith—Blachly-Lane Electric Cooperative