Growing leaders the co-op way

In 1965, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson greeted an enthusiastic crowd of 700 students and chaperones from 19 states saying, “The contribution rural electrification has made to our nation’s strength and success can never be measured adequately and now we see its finest result in the talent and the intelligence and enthusiasm of you young men and women who have so much to offer our country.”

Even in the infancy of the Youth Tour program, Johnson understood the importance of cooperatives bringing youth to the U.S. Capitol and exposing them to democracy at work. While lighting the rural countryside through REA was the foundation of the cooperative program, creating and maintaining relationships with Illinois and national leaders has been paramount to preserving the rural way of life and the cooperative business model. Introducing rural Illinois’ young people to this process through youth programs is paying dividends.

Organizing the Youth to Washington Tour is a process in Illinois. It starts at Youth Day. Generally held in March or April, the event is sponsored by the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) and its member electric and telephone co-ops.

During Youth Day at the Capitol, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White often wows students by addressing them from atop the desk in his office.

More than 300 students and chaperones from across the state converge on the state Capitol for Youth Day. Bringing such a large group to Springfield each year makes a statement, and officials always take time to meet with the contingent.

Nick Reitz, the AIEC’s vice president of government relations, and a former Youth Tour participant sponsored by Egyptian Electric Cooperative, says that 25-35 legislators generally meet with students. He explains, “Their session day schedules are incredibly busy, typically filled with floor debate, committees and other meetings. We are appreciative that they can carve out the time to visit with the Youth Day groups.”

Students are greeted by various officials. This year, they heard addresses from and met State Treasurer Michael Frerichs and Secretary of State Jesse White. They toured the state Capitol, Old State Capitol and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Following the Youth Day activities, students were interviewed and 60 to 80 selected to travel to Washington, D.C. for the week-long Youth Tour in June.

The tour’s long bus ride to D.C. allows ample time for co-op education. Students form a “chip ‘n pop” cooperative, run for seats on the board and, at the end of the tour, return capital credits. Leadership opportunities, such as running for Youth Leadership Council (YLC) representative, are also part of the tour experience.

Interested students write a 300-word essay and present it to the group. The group selects one peer to represent them as their YLC representative at the state and national electric cooperative levels.

During the 2009 Youth Tour, Luke Sailer, who was voted by his peers to represent them as Youth Leadership Council Representative, met with
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.

Former Illinois State Fair manager and 2009 YLC representative Luke Sailer, who was sponsored for the trip by Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative, says, “They were the voting body and selected me to be their representative. You know, it was the first election I won, a real honor.”

During the following year after the tour, Sailer spoke at the AIEC’s annual meeting in Springfield and attended the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s annual meeting and the national Youth Leadership Council’s weeklong conference in Washington, D. C. There, he participated in leadership activities and networked with other YLCs from across the country.

The sites on the tour are memorable – Gettysburg, war memorials, monuments and museums. However, according to John Freitag, former Youth Tour coordinator at the AIEC, the most important and rewarding aspect to him was to introduce a group of young leaders from rural Illinois to their elected leaders in Washington.

Freitag explains, “I always told the Youth Tour groups that our day on Capitol Hill was the most important of the trip because they could always return to Washington later in life, but they would probably never again attend a luncheon with all the downstate Congressional delegation and get to ask questions first-hand over lunch, while also getting an inside look at how government operates.”

Former State Representative and Youth Tour participant Tom Ryder, right, meets with a group of M.J.M. Electric Cooperative students during a Youth Day visit

Throughout the years, the electric cooperative program was an integral part of Tom Ryder’s family. The Ryder farm in rural Medora was served by M.J. M. Electric Cooperative in Carlinville. He, and his younger sister Janet, were selected and sponsored by M.J.M. Electric to go on the tour as juniors. Tom’s father, who later moved to a farm in Illinois Electric Cooperative’s territory, sponsored Tom’s son, Josh, as a Willie Wiredhand participant to travel with the Illinois Electric group. Tom returned as a tour chaperone and, years later, served as M.J.M. Electric’s attorney.

Youth Day didn’t exist when Ryder attended the 1966 Youth Tour. Prior to leaving for Washington, D.C., students were first bussed to the state Capitol. Ryder, who knew from the time he was in the sixth grade that he wanted to be a legislator, said he had what he described as an “out of body” experience. He recalls, “I was sitting in the balcony overlooking the floor of the Illinois House (of Representatives) and just soaking it in. It was my dream that I would be able to serve there.”

Ryder has vivid memories of the tour. The mid-1960s were a tumultuous period in American history, and young people’s clashes with the government were frontpage news. Tour coordinators wanted to reassure political leaders that this group would be respectful of the institutions and the people they met. That meant looking the part. Boys were required to wear coats and ties at all times and girls always wore white gloves. He said their group was the only one to do that, and it made an impression.

President Johnson hosted their group on the south lawn of the Capitol, and he and others addressed them. Ryder recalls that Everett Dirksen, who served terms in both the U.S. House and Senate, made a real impression. Dirksen, who was from Illinois, had been instrumental in passing the Equal Rights Amendment. Ryder said that Dirksen was a real character with great speechmaking abilities.

Ryder’s longtime dream came true, and from 1983 to 2001, he served in the Illinois House of Representatives. As a legislator, he was able to experience electric cooperative youth programs from the other side and made sure he was always available on Youth Day. He explains, “As a legislator, I always looked forward to it because I had a connection with them. They were good people the cooperative served, and they were interested in the process.”

A high point of Youth Day is a visit to the Old State Capitol. Here, Justin Blandford gives a brief history of the building, Abraham Lincoln’s connection to it and other historical Springfield information.

Justin Blandford, superintendent of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, oversees Springfield’s many historical sites, including the Old State Capitol, which is included in the Youth Day activities. He was a 1994 Youth Tour participant and returned later to chaperone the tour. He says, “I remember being in a classroom and someone asked if anyone would like to try to compete for a trip to Washington, D.C. I remember wondering what kind of group would want to pay for all these kids to go to Washington.” He was selected and sponsored by Monroe County Electric Co-Operative, Inc.

While the fun activities, historical sites and camaraderie reside in Blandford’s memory, what resonated with him was learning the power and impact of students’ voices, both individually and collectively. He explains, “I don’t know of other programs that are trying to teach that to high school students and then implementing it. Explaining to somebody that their voice matters is one thing but guiding them to a forum or an opportunity to visit our nation’s capital where they can actually do that is a pretty special thing.”

While on Capitol Hill in 2016, students used their collective voice to promote NRECA’s “Co-ops Vote” initiative. The program encouraged co-op members to participate in national, state and local elections, while educating political candidates and elected officials about the important role played by electric cooperatives.

Blandford feels that another important aspect of the youth programs is that of access. He says, “When you’re in high school, access to leadership or power isn’t necessarily something you think about. It’s just the nature of the process that those who step forward and seek out the attention, or seek to influence a bill, are going to be heard. Our democracy is constructed as such that we’re all provided the opportunity to do that if we know that’s there.”

But how does one capitalize on that access? Blandford feels that the youth programs help prime youth to think about what they’re going to do when they’re in front of officials. That they should think about it and be ready. He explains, “They might run into the governor in the Capitol building and can be frozen, not say anything and not even get a handshake, or they can invite him to their home county to discuss their local issues.”

Blandford says, “I think the lesson I was able to bring forward from both the trip to Springfield, but most importantly in Washington, D.C., is that helping participants recognize that stepping outside their comfort zone to be heard is powerful.”

He speaks of meeting U.S. Senator Paul Simon and Col. Oliver North in Washington, and of subsequent meetings with President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev closer to home. It’s about stepping out making the best of the access.

Many Youth Tour alums used lessons learned through youth programs to launch their careers in government. For instance, from 1989 to 2006, Art Tenhouse of Quincy served as a state representative. Former University of Illinois (U of I) President Robert Easter traveled to Washington on an early Texas Youth Tour. Sailer, who is a U of I graduate and worked with Easter at the university when he was in student government, says, “He’s someone I admire. It’s kind of neat that we’re part of that same club.”

U.S. Representative Darin LaHood and 2016 Youth Leadership Council Representative Sophie Marcolla pose for a photo.

Other Youth Tour participants with political ties include Evan Keller, a 2009 tour alum who was sponsored by SouthEastern Illinois Electric Cooperative. Keller serves as deputy press secretary In U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth’s office. Sophie Marcolla, who was sponsored by Adams Electric Cooperative on the 2016 tour, will be interning in Congressman Darin LaHood’s D.C. office this summer. Aaron Mulvey, who attended Youth Day in 2009 through Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative, was the communications strategist for U.S. Congressman Rodney Davis and now serves as a legislative correspondent for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sailer says the tour was truly beneficial, “It gave me that confidence for the political aspect. I had government aspirations, and still do. It’s been a foundation for me to pursue those political dreams and keep growing and doing the work of the people.”

Blandford says there are few experiences that will open the doors for attendees that Youth Tour does, and few experiences that are going to help them grow and mature in such a short amount of time.

Ryder agrees that the tour made an impact. “That trip helped me focus on what I wanted to do. I’d had inklings about politics, but when I came to Springfield and saw the legislature, then went to Washington, D.C. and met the members of Congress, it is a very special memory – one that I enjoy so much. It’s paid dividends. Clearly it did for me.”

Through youth programs, electric co-ops continue to provide students the opportunity to learn about the political process, democracy and diplomacy. This helps to build leaders who understand cooperatives and can make an impact on their communities and possibly the future of this country.

For more information about the Illinois Electric Cooperative Youth Programs, contact your local electric or telephone cooperative or Ashley Graham, member services manager and youth programs coordinator at the AIEC at 217-241-7916 or