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The gift of light: n Linemen, electric coops bring power to remote villages

About 450 residents in rural Guatemala have electricity for the first time courtesy of 13 linemen, including two from Petit Jean Electric Cooperative Corp.

Arkansas electric cooperatives and ERMCO, a manufacturer of transformers, donated materials, labor and funds for the project.

Tom Henderson and Steve Rooney, selected by their colleagues to represent Petit Jean on the trip, arrived in Guatemala City on Oct. 18 along with 11 other Arkansas electric cooperatives linemen.

It took the linemen two days on the Pan American Highway, dodging “landslides and crazy drivers” up the side of a mountain with no guard rails in the back of a Toyota truck to get to the base camp of the operation, the two recalled. They worked from the base camp for nine days to bring electricity to the villages of Baloverdre, San Pablo and Buena Vista. The villagers had done the preliminary work to prepare for line connection, including clearing rights-of-way and erecting poles.

Many of the villagers had been waiting for seven or eight years for electricity. A 95-year-old woman knew just what she wanted when her house had electricity — television, and she was ready with a TV set she had been storing in a corner of her home for years.

During their time in Guatemala, the villagers treated them like heroes, Henderson and Rooney said. They were served lunch every day of chicken, rice, tortillas and fresh fruit. Every day, they were supplied with American soft drinks.

“If they had it, we could have it,” Rooney said. “They treated us like kings.”

Living conditions for the crew were not palatial, however. The men shared four rooms and one shower, sleeping on cots and sleeping bags.

Rural Guatemala is much like that of 1940s America, said Rob Roedel, communications manager for Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, and the goal of the project was to allow villagers to improve their quality of life. A big plus for the residents is that electricity will help increase their profits on their coffee bean crop, which is their only industry.

During the final days in Guatemala, the linemen were paid a surprise visit by a group of corporate officials, including Bill Conine, CEO and general manager of Petit Jean. Conine was among the group that met with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina. They told the leader that Arkansas electric cooperatives will be back in next spring to connect residents in three more villages.

“He thanked us for changing lives of villagers,” Conine said.

As power came on in the homes built of wood, metal and homemade bricks, the villagers met it with fireworks and threw a party for the linemen.

“It was very humbling,” said Henderson who admitted to shedding a tear on the last day.

“It was a blessing, they were real thankful,” Rooney said.

“I wasn’t sure what was shining brighter, the faces of the linemen, the lights, or the faces of the homeowners,” Conine said.

The work was hard, requiring some to walk through dense woods and up hills carrying as much as 50 pounds of equipment; the living conditions were far from ideal; and the linemen were a long way from home, friends and family.

Would they do it again?

“I would go back,” Henderson said.

“I talked to a few of the men and they told me that they will cherish their memories of helping these hardworking, giving and loving people,” Conine said. “Many of them said they would come back and work again at the drop of a hat.”

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