Priests, grocery store owners, engineers, attorneys, Farm Bureau and Cooperative Extension (the County agent) employees and, most certainly, farmers were the community leaders that helped birth rural electrification. Only 1 percent of Illinois’ farms had central station power 100 years ago. Once the community got organized with the passage of the “REA” in 1936, 21 cooperatives across downstate Illinois would join more than 800 counterparts across our great country to build power lines over the next three years.
This is the power of community. This is the cooperative story. This is commitment to community, one of the seven guiding principles of rural electrification. This continues today locally throughout Illinois and the United States.
Electric cooperatives have a great heritage as democratically-controlled, nonprofit organizations. But it is the community aspect that really breaks through. That was true 82 years ago in 1936 and it is still true and flourishing today. Being local, community-focused organizations sets us apart. We are better equipped to do our job because we know, care about and understand our communities. Our co-op employees and leaders live in these very same communities and have a vested interest to build and grow thriving communities for your family and theirs.
No two electric cooperatives are exactly alike, just like no two families are identical. Every co-op is shaped over time by the community it serves, each with specific needs. For some, it is forming a rural water cooperative to supply potable water. For others, it’s developing broadband internet service to fill an unmet need.
All cooperatives are focused on building the economic base of their communities. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a wonderful program through the Rural Utility Service to grow rural investment and create more jobs. This program is called “REDLG” or the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program. USDA provides zero-interest loans to local electric cooperatives which, in turn pass those funds through to local businesses for projects that will create and retain employment in rural areas.
This has happened recently in communities such as Pana, which is building an addition to its community hospital. With assistance of a REDLG loan from Shelby Electric Cooperative, and funds from community banks, this project is on its way to completion. Shelby Electric has also assisted with a REDLG expansion loan for local manufacturer IHI Turbo America. Once complete, it will result in additional jobs and boost the local economy. Egyptian Electric Cooperative recently assisted the Degognia-Fountain Bluff Levee and Drainage District with a REDLG loan to repair and replace existing pump systems to protect 12,000 acres from flood events, such as one in 2011-12 that resulted a net income loss of more than $19 million.
Another area where our cooperatives are committed to community is youth development. This can be in the form of college scholarships, summer internships and numerous contributions to 4-H Clubs, school and youth events, including the CEO Program. Since 1964, through our national association, more than 60,000 students have been selected for the Youth to Washington summer tour, including 1,800 this past summer.
Seventy Illinois students boarded a bus from our Springfield office for a long overnight ride to Washington, D.C. at the start of a 10-day tour. It’s more than a sight-seeing trip to our nation’s capital – they come back with great friendships, experiences and broader horizons. Bethanny Lawson was sponsored by EnerStar Electric Cooperative from Paris and wrote about her experience on this very page in the September issue. She closed her commentary by saying, “I came home with a hundred new ideas on how to change the world.”
In a recent issue of Prairie Farmer magazine, Charlie Hensley from Bushnell, whose family farm is served by McDonough Power Cooperative, was also one of the participants. He gushed about making new friends all over our state. His takeaway was that our cooperatives are working together to accomplish common goals that benefit everyone involved. What a great experience for young people that will benefit our communities for years to come.
As per our goal years ago, our cooperatives are now providing quality electric service to every mile and to that last farm and home in the country. But today it’s other investments in our communities that drive our cooperatives. I can think of no better investment than in our youth and good paying jobs in rural Illinois.