During its 75-year history, Illinois Country Living has followed the almost 60 years that Illinois cooperatives have sent youths to this state and nation’s capitals. Throughout these past six decades, students have been given the opportunity to see Springfield and Washington, D.C. up close, learn first-hand about government and meet their elected officials. These students have met with congressmen, senators and even residents.
According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), the first coordinated Youth Tour where state delegations converged to Washington, D.C. for a week in June began in 1964. This tour included approximately 400 students from 12 states. Illinois cooperatives sent 37 young men and women.
Some Illinois electric co-ops began sending students long before that. Youth Tour was inspired by former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was a senator from Texas at the time, after he spoke at the 1957 NRECA annual meeting.
“If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents,” Johnson said. He urged electric co-op leaders to send young people to D.C. “where they can witness their government in action.”
The following year, an electric co-op in Iowa sent a group of students for a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., which was followed by a busload of students from Illinois in 1959. Since then, more than 3,200 students have been given the opportunity to visit D.C., thanks to Illinois electric and telephone cooperatives.
According to NRECA, more than 50,000 students across the U.S. have participated in this program. Last year alone, more than 1,700 students attended Youth Tour, which was a record high.
Student groups are organized by state, but they all come together on a specific day during the tour to hear featured speakers who talk about the role electric cooperatives play in the comminutes they serve and to meet other Youth Tour participants from across the nation.
To participate in this program, students apply and are selected by their electric or telephone cooperative. Traditionally, students selected to go on Youth Tour have competed in an essay contest. While some still do this, most of the Illinois Youth Tour participants are selected through youth leadership interviews conducted on Youth Day.
In 1973, several electric co-ops added a new dimension to the Youth Tour contest by sending a group of 35 finalists to tour the state capitol, and in 1974, it became an annual event called Youth Day. The first Youth Day brought more than 110 students and chaperones from 10 Illinois cooperatives to Springfield.
Neil Hartigan, Illinois’ 40th lieutenant governor, spoke to the students at that first Youth Day. “You are the people who will lead this state and this country in future years,” he said. “It is never too early to start thinking about what you want to do with your life. Take part. Participate. Get involved in the running of your state government.” These words ring true today.
Every spring since then, Illinois electric and telephone cooperatives have sponsored a day-long event at the state capitol. Youth Day provides students with a closeup glimpse of how Illinois state government works.
During this one-day trip to Springfield, youth from across the state tour the Illinois State Capitol building, the Old State Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the Abraham Lincoln Museum and meet with Illinois’ elected officials.
In 1976, a new addition was added to Youth Tour. The Youth Leadership Council (YLC), formerly Youth Consulting Board, allowed one student from each state delegation to represent their state and come back to D.C. for a leadership workshop focusing on the electric cooperative industry.
The selected student from Illinois serves as the official spokesperson for rural electric youth in Illinois and is asked to attend the annual meetings for NRECA and speak at the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) annual meeting.
Matt Rhoades of Illinois Electric Cooperative became Illinois’ first YLC representative and the first president of the YLC. The current YLC representative is Faye Yang of Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative, and her successor will be selected at the next Youth Tour in June.
Those students interested in being the Illinois representative on the YLC are asked to fill out an application and write an essay. Then during the Youth Tour, the representative is selected by their peers.
In addition to seeing our government in action and visiting the Capitol, Arlington National Cemetery, the Washington National Cathedral, several Smithsonian Museums, memorials and several other historic sites, the students also learn firsthand about cooperatives.
The Chip-n-Pop Co-op is a cooperative formed by the students during the tour. This is a learning experience, from the ground up, on how to form and operate a cooperative as well as provide leadership experience. While all the students are members of their co-op, some are on the nominating committee, some run and are elected to the board of directors, and others are employees of the co-op.
“We’re investing in future leaders with Youth Tour,” says Kristin Banks, coordinator of youth programs at AIEC. “This trip is jampacked. These students not only learn about their government and cooperatives, but they also gain valuable leadership skills.”
This can be proven by some alumni of Youth Tour. Tom Ryder, 1966 Youth Tour, and Art Tenhouse, 1967 Youth Tour, later served in the Illinois House of Representatives. Dippin’ Dots ice cream was invented by Curt Jones who attended Youth Tour in 1976. Others worked in political offices, news publications and some even worked for their electric cooperative. The list goes on.
The Youth Tour and Youth Day legacy continues in Illinois. This year, more than 200 students attended Youth Day in Springfield, and more than 70 students will visit Washington, D.C. in June.