Band of Brothers

Helpful hands, grateful hearts

His hands were like leather, gnarled from years of hard labor, and he stooped as he walked. His clothes, which may have fit at one time, hung on his frame and gray hair poked out from under the dark, worn hat that shaded the bright light in his eyes. He moved briskly, for someone his age, as he waved a switch and steered the wandering cows away from the men.

“I’ve come because I’ve seen the workers before when they were putting up the poles,” explained livestock farmer Señor Eugenio Yepes as he approached Kurt Krohmer, journeyman lineman for Jo-Carroll Energy. “I always come talk to them because I don’t want them to forget to put electricity for me too. I live down the hill. I’ve waited my entire life for electricity, and I’m 96 years old, almost 97. If I had electricity, well, I can buy a refrigerator to have fresh meat and vegetables and fresh cold water to drink. I won’t have to dry the meat anymore.”

Twelve Illinois linemen, representing nine electric cooperatives, traveled to Bolivia for three weeks in March. It was the longest flight most of them had ever been on; they then boarded a bus in Santa Cruz for a three-hour bus ride to Samaipata, which was their home for the duration. They recalled the bus ride along winding roads that brought to mind being “on an old rough, dusty, country Illinois road, as the bus wound its way around mountains with no guardrails, and folks passing three-wide on curves.”

The twelve used their time and talents to electrify Señor’s village of Lajas, along with 60 homes, two schools and a facility for disabled individuals. Ryan Little, journeyman lineman at Illinois Electric Cooperative, painted a picture of the work. “It was six miles of line, and if you look at it on a map it’s very straight, but the roads that we had to navigate were windy. It was like a big snake going back and forth, crossing the line that we were building, and that six miles of line equated to about 10 miles of road we would have to travel.”

The linemen knew Bolivia would be different terrain than Illinois, but little did they realize just how much. They were surprised by the rather primitive homes with dirt floors, no windows and only candles or lanterns to light the dark. “You don’t fully grasp what it’s like until you get there,” said Little. “I gained a greater appreciation for just how good things are here in the United States.”

Matt Eisenmenger, Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives safety instructor and project manager recalled, “The terrain was like nothing I had ever seen before. I looked out and saw the poles and wondered, ‘how in the world did they get that there?’ I now know – with a lot of manual labor.”

One of the biggest obstacles the linemen encountered was how difficult it was to maneuver in the mountainous terrain. It required dropping a rope off the edge of a mountain cliff and basically rappelling to the bottom to get to the poles, which had already been set. All equipment, including ladders, had to be taken with them, so they certainly didn’t want to forget anything and have to trek back out to get it.

Terry Riggins, 54-year-old Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative serviceman, explained, “In one case, we had to work at the bottom of a ravine, and it took us three or four hours to get everything we needed down there. Instead of going out the way we came, we thought it would be easier to go out through a path they had cut. I had to climb hand-over-hand up this rope. I don’t know how many times I had to stop to catch my breath. By the time I got to the top of the mountain, I literally collapsed in the back of the truck. I couldn’t have gone another 100 feet, I was done.”

The rights-of-way had already been cut, but that was another eye-opening experience for them. “They don’t have a lot of chainsaws down there, so everything is cleared by machetes,” explained Bret Richards, Corn Belt Energy Corporation construction foreman. “Where they cut the brush, there were basically spears, 10 or 12 inches tall, poking out of the ground. When I started rappelling, I began noticing all these spears. If someone was to fall any distance, they would probably be impaled.”

After arriving at the bottom, the linemen encountered jungle-like conditions with plenty of insects, shrubbery and vines. “Back home, if you’re going through rough terrain, we just have our hooks and small hand tools to carry.There, you had ladders you were carrying up and down mountains, into creek beds and up vertical cliffs, with vines tripping us up as we went,” said Joe Alexander, Illinois Electric journeyman lineman.

The linemen worked alongside 14 linemen from Cooperativa Rural de Electrificación Ltda. (CRE), the largest rural electric cooperative in the world. The CRE linemen barely spoke English, and there was only one interpreter, which made a tough communication barrier as they were divided into working groups. There was a lot of drawing in dirt, charades and hand signals, as each group learned a few words in each other’s language.

“I got introduced to this guy named Jordan,” said Krohmer. “The first thing he said to me was ‘my name is Jordan, like Michael Jordan.’ Right there I knew, yep, we were going to be buds!”

It took the CRE linemen a few days to get comfortable working with those from Illinois, but they formed bonds and learned from each other. The Bolivian linemen were used to doing their jobs with a limited amount of equipment, often using their own strength. Those from Illinois showed them ways to work smarter instead of harder, making the most of the equipment they had.

“We talk about linemen being a big brotherhood, and it’s amazing that I was able to experience that at its fullest,” said Richards. “A different country, a different culture, a different language; a brotherhood is true. At the end of our three weeks, we became very close with several of the linemen, especially the guys that we worked with. I will have fond memories of my brothers in South America and Bolivia.”

The first few days in Bolivia, the linemen worked in rural areas with their Bolivian brothers, scaling mountains and maneuvering around gorges. They didn’t interact with many locals until they got into the villages they were electrifying.

“Getting into the towns, you could just see the excitement of having something new, something that they’ve waited a long time for,” Alexander said. “Many of them probably have never known what electricity could bring for them. I’m sure now they are figuring that out.”

Located in remote, isolated areas, these villages had remained in the dark because of limited resources and manpower. “It’s a beautiful country, with beautiful people, but they are poor and need our help something fierce,” noted Troy Shafer, Menard Electric area serviceman.

“Just to see how these people live, that was definitely a reality check on life.” Krohmer said. “It really makes you appreciate everything you have… These people work to keep alive.”

What seemed to impact the linemen most of all was the kindness toward them. “The villagers treated us so well,” commented Eric DeWitt, journeyman lineman from McDonough Power. “They didn’t have much, but they would give us whatever they had. If they had fresh fruit, they would offer it to us.”

“The people were always trying to give us something,” Shafer agreed. “I had one of the best tangerines I’d ever eaten. They weren’t orange like in the U.S., they were green like limes.”

To attest to their giving nature, one lineman described a hundred-acre orchard owned by a farmer who donates all his fruit to the local facility for disabled people. “He does all the work and gives it to someone else,” commented Bill Fields, Jr., journeyman lineman for Norris Electric.

Located in Lajas, the facility is home to both adults and children with disabilities. The volunteers who work at the facility spend their time attending to the residents, preparing meals and doing laundry with limited power and resources. Before the linemen came, it was equipped with a broken generator and an unreliable solar panel.

“It almost made the job that I was doing seem insignificant,” Little said. “These people are dedicating their lives to help these people out, whereas I’m down there for three weeks and then I get to go back to my modern conveniences.”

Terry Riggins poses with children and their teacher at a school in La Negra. Riggins brought a case of protein bars to Bolivia for energy. He ended up eating two and gave the rest to the school children.

In addition to the facility, the linemen brightened the future for children in two schools. Eager to learn, play and always smiling, the handful of children at both schools ended up being a distraction for the linemen. “The kids all wanted us to play soccer with them,” said Brannon Dasch, Tri-County Electric foreman. “I could see my kids and all of the toys they have, and these kids just had a soccer ball and were happy.”

Several children wore the linemen’s hardhats and sunglasses, and some even got to go on bucket truck rides. One young man said he wanted to be a lineman when he grew up, and even helped bring electricity to his own village by helping Alexander drive in a ground rod at the base of a pole.

When it came time to turn the lights on, a celebration was held. TV news media showed up, children prepared songs and poetry, a big meal was served, and cold drinks where brought in with a refrigerator.

“The lighting ceremony was most memorable,” Dasch said. “The kids sang and you could tell it meant a lot for us to come down there and help. I really enjoyed it even though I couldn’t understand, but I could tell they were passionate about it.”

While some children sang, others read poems they wrote. These poems were interpreted to the linemen. Many wrote about how they could now do homework at night without wind blowing out their candle. A young boy wrote he will no longer be scared at night because he will have light.

“At that point, he reminded me of my own children and what it would be like if I was in their shoes and my children were scared at night,” Little added. “The whole project to me was bittersweet. I’m glad we helped, but it’s heartbreaking that people farther down the road still have children who are scared at night.”

The ceremony was an emotional experience for the locals and linemen alike. Up until this point, the Illinois linemen had only restored power to people who have always had it. Many linemen had difficulty describing how it felt to give electricity to people for the first time.

“The day the lights came on, these little girls were singing back and forth to each other. It was indescribable. I just lost it and was crying,” Fields said. “It’s hard to explain how happy those kids were singing.”

“Bringing electric to people that never had it before was an emotional feeling,” Timothy Baker said, Corn Belt Energy area serviceman. “Having those people see the light turn on, hear the radio play or open that refrigerator to have cold sodas, it was amazing.”

Illinois linemen Matt Eisenmenger, Terry Riggins, Shannon Davis and Eric DeWitt (L to R in green) pose with Señor Eugenio Yepes and Bolivian linemen Nelson Orquera (kneeling) and Carlos Giacoman (in blue).

“We are so spoiled and lucky here in the U.S.,” said Shannon Davis, Tri-County Electric serviceman. “With equipment and the common necessities that we think are necessities – fresh food, clean water; all which we take for granted. The trip made me feel very proud to be able to take part in this, and change people’s lives forever. To be able to electrify the handicapped home, so they can keep medications cold, or a refrigerator to get a cold glass of milk, store meat, or keep food after its been cooked, gave me a very satisfied feeling to know as a group we were able to help provide that to these people.”

One of those faces that stood out to the linemen was that of Señor Yepes. “At 96 years old, you’d have experienced a lot in life,” commented Alexander. “But being able to, at that age, experience something that has been around for most of his lifetime, and just now being able to benefit from it, that was pretty amazing.”

After nearly a century, Yepes can now eat fresh meat instead of dried, and can keep vegetables longer without them spoiling. Because of these Illinois linemen, Yepes, and many other Bolivians, finally have light.