As spring arrives we immediately think about blooming flowers, corn planting season and planting seeds in our gardens. The legislative session also blossoms in both Springfield and Washington D.C. But I want to talk with you this month about the co-op programs that help plant the seeds of future leadership – the scholarship and youth leadership programs where the electric and telephone co-ops of Illinois invest in our future leaders.
Cooperatives have always been involved in youth leadership programs as part of their commitment to community principle. Trying to develop the growth of our young leaders, we’re helping them understand the role of government, whether it is local governance of their electric cooperative, or with our state and federal legislature.
We also know that our young leaders need a good education. But higher education is expensive and saddles too many young people with debt. Local cooperative scholarships can help with educational needs. And, our Illinois Electric Cooperatives Memorial Scholarship program also provides help. This past scholarship season we evaluated nearly 250 applications from young cooperative members from across the state and awarded seven $1,500 scholarships. So if you have a young person in your family trying to figure out how to fund their college education certainly contact your local cooperative and apply for those scholarship opportunities.
When it comes to understanding our legislative process we have two programs. One is the Youth Day in Springfield trip and the second program is the Youth to Washington tour. The Youth Day in Springfield trip will engage more than 200 high school students and chaperones who will leave their cooperative office early one morning and travel to the state capitol. Electric cooperative staff will help them understand how a bill becomes law and why it is important to understand who their elected officials are. We want them to know that the issues being debated have a direct impact on them either personally, their family, or their family’s business.
Cooperatives take this seriously because we are democratically controlled organizations. Our membership owns the electric cooperative and at an annual meeting they elect directors to govern the policies and direction of their local electric cooperative. So cooperative leaders respect the state and federal process because it is the same democratic foundation on which we build our organizations.
After the Youth to Springfield trip we often hear that the trip opened their eyes to a career opportunity they may have never really thought about. Political science or law might be a career they would enjoy because it is a chance to make a difference for people. It sometimes impacts their college decisions and the major they will take.
Next, from the students who attend the Springfield trip we will help select some 80 students who will take a 10-day trip to Washington, D.C. We think the Youth to Washington Tour is an intense and involved program and offers opportunities that really impact young people. In this new world of social media these young people will stay in touch with each other because of this experience. They create life-long friends from this life changing experience.
This trip makes a big impression on all the students who go, and the chaperones too. Some students even go back and become an intern in a congressional office. It truly helps plant the seeds of leadership.
For example, there is a young man who went on this trip just a few years ago, Luke Sailer. Luke was just hired as Senior Public Service Administrator in the Illinois Department of Agriculture. This trip peaked his interest for a career in public service. Another young man who represented Norris Electric Cooperative on the tour, Nick Klitzing, became involved in Governor Rauner’s campaign and then worked on the transition team. Now he is Executive Director for the Illinois
Republican Party. That’s just two examples of young people whose careers and lives have taken a dramatic turn because of the influence of the cooperative youth programs through your local electric cooperative.
I believe we are just one piece of the effort that is needed to help develop young leaders who will in turn come back and make rural America a good place to live, work and play.
There is nothing worse than having a leadership vacuum or void. We need the benefit of that young leadership and enthusiasm to run our own organizations whether it is a co-op, a township, county, state or even your local church council.
I urge you to also get involved locally in planting the seeds for young rural leaders.