The cooperative difference comes full circle
How the Youth Tour program inspired PEC employee Daniel Sanders' passion for lifelong service.
Nine years ago, PEC Lineworker Apprentice 3 Daniel Sanders had no clue who provided electricity for his home, let alone what it meant to be a cooperative member, and he definitely couldn’t have predicted what an important role cooperatives would come to play in his life.
In 2008, Sanders was a high school senior in Madisonville, Texas, when his agriculture teacher — who was enthusiastic about their community’s cooperative, Mid-South Synergy — insisted he apply to its Youth Tour program. Sanders hardly understood what he was applying for or why, but an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., sounded great.
Sanders was selected as a winner, and he traveled to Capitol Hill the following summer with 105 other Texas cooperative students. Together with about 1,400 other Youth Tour winners from across the country, they visited sights, met with government officials and created lifelong memories.
“It seemed easy to mingle with those kids,” Sanders said. “The common conversation was always, ‘I live 10 and a half hours east of some major city,’ which was a great connection we made together.”
Sanders went home inspired by the extraordinary opportunity and full of newfound respect for the work cooperatives do. Because he was a Youth Tour winner, Mid-South Synergy offered him a summer internship, and he accepted. The position exposed him to a wide range of work experience within the cooperative, from member services to SCADA operations to working with line crews, and he learned a lot about how his cooperative powered and empowered the community.
In the fall, Sanders entered Texas A&M University to study business, but by springtime, his cooperative came calling once again. This time, he was asked to represent Texas on the Youth Leadership Council at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Annual Meeting in New Orleans. It was there Sanders was introduced to NRECA International and started questioning his chosen career path.
At the meeting, speaker Abraham Awolich gave a presentation about his home in south Sudan. He said when electricity reached his village, it was a game changer.
“As a young, malleable college student, I thought this was big-picture kind of stuff, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Sanders said. “[Awolich] said to me, ‘Daniel, if you put a light up in the middle of nowhere in my country, within six months, there will be a village built around it.'”
The presentation was so inspiring to Sanders he changed his major from business to community development. As he continued his studies as a full-time Aggie, he also began working full time at Mid-South Synergy as a SCADA operator, then a community development liaison and then a lineman apprentice, a position he continued in after graduation.
During Sanders’ apprenticeship, he came across a job posting for a position at NRECA International, a philanthropic effort to help “electrify one village at a time.” Things happened fast: he applied and was hired, moved to Northern Virginia, spent a day and a half at orientation and was then dispatched on a six-week trip to Haiti. He spent the next year and a half traveling in the Caribbean and East Africa.
Sanders got married during this time. When he told NRECA International management he was looking to settle in one place for a while, they offered him a construction supervisor position in Haiti, and he accepted. He and his wife immediately moved to Coteaux and lived there for five months.
Sanders’ most vivid memory of his work with NRECA International took place there, when he helped electrify a village for the first time. He remembers it was brisk that evening, and although it was starting to get dark, the villagers, young and old, were dancing in the streets.
“This old lady, who probably didn’t have a tooth in her head, grabbed me and gave me a big kiss on the cheek while muttering in Creole, ‘I’ll always remember the work you did,'” Sanders said. “When you give someone a simple service for the first time, it changes their world.”
After the village was electrified, Sanders and the volunteers spent time educating the locals about safety precautions and how to be mindful of their usage. Sanders even asked NRECA to create coloring books for the children with phrases in Creole like, “Don’t climb trees next to power lines.”
Sanders knew he could never witness moments like these in the U.S., but he was homesick. When he met the 2015 PEC Haiti Team of Journeyworkers Andy Ridge, Marshall Verette and Mark Moreno, the men encouraged him to apply at PEC.
“I remember Andy Ridge telling me to apply with PEC because it was a great place to work, and I had heard all about the available opportunities there,” Sanders said. “I knew the Hill County was a really cool part of the state, and I was longing to move back to Texas.”
Now, as one of PEC’s lineworker apprentices, Sanders doesn’t just consider himself a lineman; he understands that he has become a crucial part of the cooperative difference and is grateful that he was introduced to something so special during a crucial part of his life.
“I believe the cooperative difference is sending 10 kids to D.C.,” Sanders said. “If you’re invested in your community, you have informed youth and are enriching their lives beyond just lighting up their house.”
The cooperative difference came full circle for Sanders when he was asked to speak at our Dec. 1 Youth Tour awards dinner in the headquarters auditorium. There, he shared his passion for the cooperative business model with students about to embark on the very trip that had such an important impact on his life.
“It all started with Youth Tour and exposing me to the electric cooperative lifestyle,” Sanders said.