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Texas USA

Where Besties Beckon

Youth Tour—the co-op-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C.—is back, continuing a decadeslong tradition

Grant Carlisle leaned in close as he studied a section of a giant map of North Texas on the wall of Rep. Van Taylor’s office on Capitol Hill. The teen’s face was inches from the surface as he scoured a sea of red pushpins that denoted visitors to the office.

Suddenly he pulled his face away, wide-eyed. “That’s like literally right where my house is,” he said. “This pin right here.”

He was connecting the dots.

Carlisle’s Frisco home has a special place in Washington, D.C., and you could see that realization all over his face that day in June 2022.

That’s the power of the Government-in-Action Youth Tour—stirring, life-changing experiences, one after another. Texas’ electric cooperatives have sent more than 4,400 teens to Washington on this annual trip of a lifetime since 1965. The trip was canceled for the first time, in 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But last June, 123 students from Inez, Muleshoe, Rusk, Stamford and points in between began their adventure in the state capital as strangers. They returned home 10 days later as friends for life, bonded by text chains, social media and deeply moving shared experiences.

“This trip was full of many firsts: first time being homesick, first time flying, first time having dance lessons in a lobby, first time chanting ‘the stars at night are big and bright,’ ” said Naomi Abrego of San Juan, who was sponsored by Magic Valley Electric Cooperative. “I genuinely didn’t think I would create life-lasting bonds with others, but I was wrong. I’ve witnessed people go from strangers to besties.”

Youth Tour was conceived by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson in 1957, when he charged electric cooperatives with sending teens to D.C. to “see what the flag stands for and represents.” Soon after, Texas sent its first group of 58. And this June, more than 150 will tour Washington’s many monuments, museums and memorials; learn about democracy, government and electric cooperatives; and even meet their representatives on Capitol Hill.

Nine years before Cole Shirley, manager of metering and fiber infrastructure for Tri-County Electric Cooperative, was hired by the co-op, he was first exposed to the co-op world on Youth Tour in 2009.

“MidSouth Electric Cooperative was my sponsoring cooperative, and they furnished an internship as part of the tour and scholarship package,” he said. “My time working for them in the summer after Youth Tour showed me the family environment common to all cooperatives and let me experience a range of tasks from working with cashiers to pulling wire for an underground service.”

Some participants—like Vanessa Alvarado of Gholson, outside Waco—feel called to serve their country.

“I was overwhelmed with heartfelt respect when we visited Arlington National Cemetery,” said Alvarado, who was sponsored by HILCO EC in 2019 and enlisted in the Air Force. “And just knowing how all these men and women paid the ultimate price for their country inspired me even more to continue and be a part of something bigger than myself.”

Not every participant can attest to that kind of invigorating experience. But all can vouch for the unique bonds forged by going through first after first with a busload of strangers. Between belting out Deep in the Heart of Texas, dancing in hotel lobbies and posing for selfies, they couldn’t have connected the dots between small-town Texas and big-city D.C. without the friends they made along the way.

“We have a group chat with 123 people on it, and they’re not lying when they say you have another family,” said Luke Hoelscher of San Angelo, sponsored by Concho Valley EC last summer. “It’s 123 extra family members all across the state of Texas, and it’s amazing.” Fellow CVEC delegate Kenley Cox of Haskell put it bluntly.

“My favorite thing about the trip wasn’t the architecture or the beauty of the things we saw,” she said. “It was the friendships that were made.

“We came, we saw and we represented Texas.”