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With Cooperatives, You’ve Got a Friend

People helping people—that’s been the cooperative way from the start

As soon as their car pulls up at SpiritHorse Therapeutic Center in Corinth, Sarah Dross throws open the door and runs all the way to the stable. “She doesn’t even wait for me,” says her mother, Maite Brown. For most 6-year-olds, such exuberance spills out daily. In Sarah’s case, it’s a miracle.

Diagnosed with mild to moderate autism, Sarah spoke little as a toddler and showed next to no emotion. Then three years ago, Brown enrolled her in classes at SpiritHorse, which provides free therapeutic horseback riding services to more than 450 children and adults in North Texas.

”When Sarah said, ‘Walk on’ for the first time to her horse, that made us all so happy!” Brown recalls. “Because of SpiritHorse, my daughter has grown more confident in her abilities to accomplish tasks, and her vocabulary has grown, too.”

She adds, “The horses are so transforming for all the children. I’m so glad they’re there!”

Private contributions and public grants—such as three totaling $25,925 given by the CoServ Charitable Foundation—enable kids like Sarah to learn, have fun and experience miracles at SpiritHorse. CoServ, a Corinth-based cooperative, “is an exemplary organization,” says SpiritHorse program founder Charles Fletcher. “They set an example to all corporations in giving back to the communities they serve.”

”People helping people—that’s been the cooperative way from the start,” says Ray Beavers, board chairman of Texas Electric Cooperatives and CEO/general manager of United Cooperative Services in Cleburne. Thanks to the first electric co-ops, power lines finally reached rural areas in the 1930s, dramatically improving lives. Today, 64 Texas electric co-ops—ranging in size from 3,400 meters to more than 218,000 meters—do much more than provide at-cost electricity to members. “As integral members of their communities, co-ops and their employees reach out to others and make a difference in countless ways,” Beavers says.

There’s no way to cover all the ways electric cooperatives are involved in their local communities. But the following stories show how co-ops touch the lives of the people they serve.

Saving Lives, Stopping Crimes

Co-op employees become the eyes and ears of their community. Linemen who travel highways and back roads to reach work sites often are the first to render aid at accident scenes and assist stranded motorists. Familiar with their service areas, they’re quick to sense when something’s not right at a remote house. For instance, in March 2008, an alert equipment operator with Pedernales Electric Cooperative—part of the Rural Crime Watch Program—helped authorities identify suspects who were later charged with robbing an elderly man in his Buda home. The co-op employee had noticed three young men walking toward the house and notified authorities.

That same month, volunteer firefighters and linemen with Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative used a co-op bucket truck to safely lift a couple from atop their car, which had been swept off the road by raging floodwaters. “I thank God they were there and that they came to our rescue,” says Charles Sharpton of San Augustine.

In early January 2008, a 3-year-old boy wandered away from his yard in Collingsworth County. Two linemen with Greenbelt Electric Cooperative joined the search and found the child, surrounded by his three protective dogs, in a pasture a quarter of a mile away from his home. “Co-op employees carry keys, so we were able to open a gate and get to the area,” says Sheriff Joe Stewart.

Up With Local Economies

Often among the largest employers in their community, co-ops inject millions of dollars into local economies through their payrolls. Many, though, don’t stop there. For example, CoServ and Pedernales Electric assist nonprofit and governmental groups with grant-writing services. CoServ also staffs a dedicated “business line” to make it easy for potential new employers and developers to request electric services. Such special services are frequently a factor in attracting industry.

To this day, cotton producers around El Campo still save on freight costs, thanks to Wharton County Electric Cooperative. In 1992, the Coastal Plains AgriBusiness Incubator, founded by the electric co-op, loaned $100,000 to the Farmers Cooperative of El Campo so members could upgrade an existing cotton warehouse they’d bought. Having their own meant they didn’t have to ship cotton to Corpus Christi for temporary storage before final shipment to Houston. “It was great when they offered to help us,” says Jim Roppolo, general manager of the farmers’ co-op.

Youth Matters

Texas electric co-ops enthusiastically support programs that promote and educate youths of all ages. Most notably, co-ops collectively give thousands of dollars worth of scholarships every year to high school seniors and college students.

Since 1965, young Texans have gotten firsthand looks at the nation’s capital, thanks to the annual Government-in-Action Youth Tour. Sponsored by their co-ops, students spend a week in Washington, D.C., visiting historical and governmental sites. For many, the visit leaves a lasting impact.

”The trip exposed me to Congress and what all they do,” recalls Bill Sarpalius, a 1968 Youth Tour participant hosted by Deaf Smith Electric Cooperative. “It was a very patriotic and moving trip for me.” Sarpalius went on to become a Texas state senator and U.S. congressman. Today, he owns a legislative consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

Comanche Electric Cooperative is one of dozens of Texas co-ops that participate in the Shepperd System of Service program, targeted at high school students. The one-day forums teach leadership, ethics, problem solving, community involvement and other skills. “The courses help our students learn how to plan and follow through,” says Ronnie Clifton, a teacher at Comanche High School. “It gives them an awareness of what it takes to be a good leader, which we need more of.”

In East Texas, nine electric co-ops (Bowie-Cass, Cherokee County, Deep East Texas, Houston County, Jasper-Newton, Panola-Harrison, Rusk County, Upshur-Rural and Wood County) have sponsored their own high school program since 1988. Held at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, the weeklong East Texas Rural Electric Youth Seminar hosts 125 sophomores and juniors who participate in leadership workshops and compete for scholarships.

Other co-ops reach out to kids in their own ways. Every year at Livingston High School, a line technician with Sam Houston Electric Cooperative helps a physics teacher test Galileo’s gravity experiment from 60 feet high in a bucket truck. Students watch while the teacher and the lineman drop objects—such as baseballs, stuffed animals and modeling clay—to study what hits the ground first. “It gives us the opportunity to do something we’d never be able to do ourselves,” says teacher Paul McLendon. “Without their bucket truck, we’d just have to talk about it.”

Every year, fourth-graders in Fayette County learn how seeds germinate, where milk comes from, and other farming basics when they attend Ag in the Classroom, put on by the Fayette County Farm Bureau. For more than a decade, David Lehmann, board president with Fayette Electric Cooperative, has spearheaded the project. The co-op also contributes funds and small prizes, and the students get hands-on experience with animals such as armadillos and longhorns, thank to volunteer Ralph Fisher of Ralph Fisher’s Photo Animals.           

Time Out for Civics

Outside their jobs, co-op employees work just as hard in their communities. They volunteer as Sunday school teachers, Little League coaches, student mentors and firefighters. Many serve on boards that direct school districts, chambers of commerce, economic development agencies, child advocacy centers and food banks.

Take, for example, HILCO Electric Cooperative. At this single cooperative, Matt Fehnel, director of information services and technology, leads the Itasca City Council as mayor. Bob Wilson, director of special services, is a board member with the city’s chamber of commerce. Both Fehnel and Wilson, along with HILCO General Manager Debra Cole, serve on the Itasca Board of Revitalization, which coordinates citywide cleanups and recruits new businesses.

What’s more, HILCO’s Assistant General Manager Lea Sanders serves as president of the Hillsboro Lions Club. Among its many charitable projects last fall, the club donated six wheelchairs to the Hillsboro school district. “I’ve been very blessed in my life, and I truly believe in the philosophy of ‘pay it forward,’ “ Sanders says simply.

”Multiply this sense of service by 64 Texas electric cooperatives, and one gets an idea of the energy cooperative employees pour into their communities,” says Darren Schauer, TEC board vice chair and general manager/CEO of Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative.

Reaching Out to Others

It’s impossible to list the hundreds of nonprofit organizations supported by Texas co-ops. Every year, employee contributions fund such entities as libraries, fire departments, chambers of commerce, senior citizens and youth groups and emergency medical services. After hours, many co-ops participate in Relay for Life, a major fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. They also sponsor blood drives, holiday toy drives and coat collections.

Some co-ops and their members give through Operation Round Up, a tax-deductible program that rounds up electric bills to the nearest dollar and donates the money to local charities. For example, the Brazos Valley Food Bank in Bryan received $12,000 from Mid-South Synergy. The Operation Round Up gift largely supported the agency’s BackPack program, which discreetly returns backpacks (all refilled with healthy foods) to 325 hungry kids every Friday.

”Many of our children lack adequate nutrition, and the only actual meal they receive is the one they get at school,” says Drucessa Collins, dropout prevention specialist with the Navasota school district. “This program helps wedge the gap during that time away from school on the weekend.”

Last summer, needy folks in Seguin, Gonzales and La Vernia received brand-new clothing, compliments of Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative (GVEC). Local ministerial alliances coordinated the distributions, aided by GVEC employees and community volunteers. In all, nearly 2,500 people received slacks, jeans and shirts as well as toiletries and shoes. Two events also included free lunches; the other featured cookies, pastries and bottled water.

In June 2007, thieves in Frisco made off with a trailer loaded with camping gear. At first, that meant no summer camp for more than 60 Boy Scouts. That is, until the CoServ Charitable Foundation issued an emergency grant of $8,000 to Troop 216.

”The Scouts had worked very hard for months, earning the money to purchase the trailer and equipment,” recalls Joe Koester, the troop’s committee chairman. “In one afternoon,  everything was gone. But CoServ helped us out tremendously, and we were able to replace the trailer and most of the equipment.”

Unique and Special

At a local library, someone wants an event banner stretched across a busy street. Across town, VFW members need help putting up a new flagpole, and parents with the Little League have new lights ready to be installed at their field. No problem. Texas electric co-ops gladly make time for local “to-do” lists.

Some efforts, however, go beyond the call of duty. For instance, a lineman with Houston County Electric Cooperative borrowed a bucket truck one Saturday and volunteered his time to help a congregation power wash its church steeple. 

Last August in northeast Texas, crews with Lamar Electric Cooperative erected an artificial eagle’s nest on the Graff Ranch in Red River County. First, they set two utility poles and firmly attached a wooden cross arm between them. Then they lifted the 5-foot-wide nest—actually a metal basket intertwined with tree branches—onto the board.

”We couldn’t have accomplished it without them because we don’t have that kind of equipment,” says ranch manager Jeff Pennington.

Beyond Co-op Lines

When needed, co-ops help fellow co-ops, no matter the distance. The recovery efforts that follow a hurricane best illustrate a long-held co-op principle, “Cooperation among cooperatives.” Before a storm even makes landfall, many Texas electric co-ops stand ready to deploy crews and equipment to hard-hit areas as quickly as they can. After Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005, personnel from Texas co-ops slept in tents on-site as they worked around the clock to restore power.

Reaching far beyond state lines, one co-op has sent volunteers overseas. Two foremen with Wood County Electric Cooperative—a participant in the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s International Programs—last August visited an electric co-op in the Philippines, where they delivered donated equipment, inspected fleet vehicles and helped plan for future electrification projects.

”People helping people—that will always be the cooperative way,” Beavers says.

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers, a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative, is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.