The Power of Community
Illinois co-op leader shares his insights on Haiti and Guatemala efforts
By Jonie Larson
It takes hours to travel the “National Highway” in Haiti. Here it is seen a couple days after a rain. — Photo by Bruce Giffin
The online promotion for the Hotel Montana shows beautiful gardens,
gleaming tile floors and a picturesque view. It’s described as a place to socialize and dine, rest and dream, relax and enjoy. While it’s not pictured, in reality it’s protected by walls and guards – a secure haven for visitors. And that’s exactly what Bruce Giffin, General Manager for Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, observed on one of his trips to Haiti with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) International Foundation.
But the beauty of the well-developed Web site belies the horror that recently occurred at the hotel and the impoverished city around it. Today, it rests in ruins on the hillside just above Port-au-Prince. Reports say more than 100 people, as many as 200, died in the hotel as the earth shook and brought the walls down on Jan. 12.
A Web posting alert says the hotel is closed until further notice. A photograph taken by the U.S. Navy pictures it as nothing but a heap on the ground.
The quake, measuring a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale, caused immeasurable devastation in the capital city, claiming an estimated 150,000-200,000 lives. Housing, which was meager to begin with, is nothing more than rubble. Any infrastructure – including power lines – is in ruins.
Kenny Roundcount and Mike King, linemen from Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, both wearing red shirts, help set a pole in Guastatoya, Guatemala. A third lineman, Chad Gregory, was also on the NRECA International sponsored trip. — Photo by Bruce Giffin
Many humanitarians in the world are rushing to the rescue of the injured people and orphaned children. And experts have teamed up and traveled to the broken country to assess the damage. Electric co-op employees are among them.
About a week following the natural disaster, the NRECA International Foundation sent a four-person rapid-response team to Haiti to assess the damage of the electric power sector. They had two assignments: Do a quick appraisal of short-term measures to repair critical segments of the electrical power system and secondly, to identify emergency power needed at rescue centers such as hospitals, health centers and refugee camps. While there, they have been able to install several emergency generators and have visited more than 4,000 poles to assess damage.
The NRECA International Foundation has been present in Haiti since 1998, one of 12 countries in the world where the cooperative organization is helping establish electric cooperatives. In its endeavors that year, the NRECA International Foundation established its first electric cooperative in Haiti in the small town of Pignon, about 80 miles from Port-au-Prince.
While the epicenter of the quake was near the hotel in Port-au-Prince, Pignon was not directly affected. However, according to Ingrid Hunsizker, Senior Program Manager for the NRECA International Foundation, Pignon is now a refugee point, with Pignon Cooperative President Caleb Lucien, helping the needy in every way possible.
Giffin, who has been an active participant in the foundation’s efforts, spent more than a week in Pignon on two occasions, once in 2007 and again in 2008. His mission was to give technical assistance and guide the new co-op board toward sustainability.
More recently, from Jan. 20-24, Giffin was in Guastatoya, Guatemala working for the NRECA, where he carried out a similar role. The NRECA International program covers the cost of transportation, means and housing for all volunteers. Three of his linemen were on that trip, too: Chad Gregory, Kenny Roundcount and Mike King. They returned at the end of January.
Giffin says the rewards of volunteering are two-fold, with those going, getting as much as they give. He says a trip to either place will change your life.
In attempting to compare U.S. culture with that of either country, Giffin shares a glimpse into his childhood. He says he lived in North Danville, Vt. when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Just two miles out of town, he said his family didn’t have electricity. In a similar way, when you go to Guatemala or Haiti, houses out in the country don’t have electricity.
“I’m probably one of 5,000 living people who have ever been up to this little community called, Correal Viejo, literally on top of a mountain in Guatemala.” he says of the rural regions. Women and children there work in agricultural plots, a three-hour daily walk up and down the mountain. There is no school. In places like that, people’s lives change enormously when they get lights.
But even a short trip to volunteer in one of these remote locations will leave a lasting impression – from friendship to appreciation.
One of the indelible marks of a trip to a developing country is that travel on U.S. roads is more than a comfort.
“The roads up the mountain are terrible. It’s a wonder we made it.” Giffin said. “And in Haiti, the 80-mile trek from Pignon to Port-au-Prince takes over five hours on the ‘National Highway.’ ”
But it’s not necessarily the hardships of the Haitians or the Guatemalans that change the volunteers. It’s the people.
Giffin explains, “There are cultural differences, but the same is true here.” What makes the trip special is that you have the opportunity to help these people – to help them learn; to help them become self-sufficient.
Speaking with conviction, Giffin shares genuine concern for the conditions of these countries, particularly Haiti – before and after the quake. He said Port-au-Prince used to be “a city of two- to three-million people with two- to three-working stoplights.” He describes it as a place of “desperate squalor.”
He says all of the good intentions of those who have helped Haiti through the years do not go unnoticed, but in many ways the aid has unintended consequences.
“We (meaning the rest of the assisting world) have created a dependent society,” Giffin says, noting the streets were lined with people who had nothing to do. That, coupled with the fact that many have limited education – not beyond the fourth or fifth grade – puts the Haitians at a disadvantage.
The quake has rightfully turned all the world’s attention to helping the survivors with basic needs. But to rebuild will take a greater vision. Giffin says incentives need to be created so it’s in the people’s interests to work: building roads, infrastructure and solving problems of deforestation. He says all of these projects could create jobs for the people and make them more independent.
The goal of the NRECA International program mirrors Giffin’s understanding in many ways. It’s not a program equipped to support other countries. Its intentions are to reach out with brotherly arms and enlighten, giving others an opportunity to have better lives. It’s all about hands-on training.
Giffin is happy to help with that. He points out a poster on the wall of Illinois Rural Electric’s offices – the same poster one would find in Pignon. It reads in French: Cooperative Electrique de Pignon. The first sentence is written in Creole, but the value is the same as its American cooperative counterpart: “The cooperative exists to make the lives of the people better.”
Giffin’s linemen are just as committed to the mission. King, who just returned from Guatemala says he was the first to raise his hand when the opportunity to go was extended.
“It was worth every minute,” King says. He made friends, learned a little Spanish and found out that linework is linework, no matter where you do it. The conditions were not ideal. It was hot and very dry, much like the desert. But the biggest eye opener was the equipment.
“It made me appreciate the trucks and the tools (back home)” King says.
Katalina Mayorga, Project Coordinator for the NRECA International Foundation, was in Guatemala and got to witness some of the first equipment handed out to the local electric crews employed. The Guatemalan linemen were using machetes to cut down cacti, brush and trees. They wore no gloves or hard hats. And the trucks they use to haul poles from the mill are often pickups borrowed from family members.
Seeing the need, the NRECA Foundation brought in hard hats right away and showed the workers how to assemble them. And work gloves are being provided by Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative. They were to be presented to Santiago Davila Morales, Assistant General Manager for the electrical company of the municipality of Guastatoya, at this year’s NRECA annual meeting in February.
John Freitag, Vice President of Operations for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives and Jim Thompson, Manager for Adams Electric will also soon play a role in teaching linemen in Guastatoya. The two have planned an initial trip to the city to survey the area for a lineman’s training school. They will go in early March.
If given the opportunity, King will go back to Guatemala or he would volunteer in Haiti.
“I would sign up every time,” he says, noting that it would be a gift to help those less fortunate.
“I try to pay it forward,” King says.
His attitude and others like him are exactly why Giffin believes in the program. He spoke from the heart about the character of his crew.
“We send these guys and they become part of a bigger community. We are saying, ‘You guys are good enough to represent us anywhere.’
How well are they accepted there? “Just Fine. These are thoroughly authentic people,” Giffin says of his men. “They are well-grounded. They are OK in their own skins. No pretense. They are there to give a helping hand. My guys get to know these guys individually. It’s enormously rewarding to help someone learn to do something.”
In his report to the Illinois Rural Board of Directors, Giffin says he quipped with the mayor of Guastatoya about his intentions in helping them. The mayor accused him of being a nice guy. Giffin wrote in his own words: “ … the mayor looks at me, with a slight smile, and says another mayor had asked something to the effect: ‘What’s with these U.S. cooperative guys sending crews and material? Nobody is
To that Giffin responds: “So, I tell the mayor, I’m not so nice. I’m pretty calculating.”
The bottom line for Giffin is this.
“I send good guys there, I get better guys back.”
And, in turn, the world gets a little brighter. Literally.