Trip of a lifetime opens up a world of opportunity

Youth to Washington alumni say the trip changed their lives

You could tell as they approached the building that some were a bit hesitant, while others had that air of adventure about them. Very few knew anyone else taking the trip. As they dropped off their suitcases and milled around, the noise of nervous excitement filled the meeting room. And, as some of them said goodbye to parents, there were a few tears, but they all stayed because this was a trip for which they were chosen and one of a lifetime.

As they loaded onto the coach busses, little did they know that in a few short days they would have made lifelong friends. These students from across rural Illinois were on their way to Washington, D.C. and the Youth to Washington tour. While the motivations for going varied, one thing would be true, they would never forget it!

Saying yes to life

Sibling rivalry was her motivation. Martha Rawe of Greenfield really wanted to visit Washington, D.C. in 1959 because her younger sister had already won a spelling bee that took her to our nation’s capital.

Rawe remembers writing an essay as part of an inaugural contest sponsored by her electric cooperative, Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative. The contest was her opportunity. For Rawe, the Youth to Washington trip really sparked a desire to travel and to do things outside of her comfort zone.

She remembers the many memorials and museums the group visited, but was especially touched by Gettysburg. It also meant a lot to her to have local legislators take the time out of their busy schedules to meet with students and answer their questions.

“I believe I wouldn’t have said yes to a lot of things in my life, if I hadn’t gone on the trip,” says Rawe. “I’ve traversed the world having been to Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Scotland, Italy and Canada. Before the trip I hadn’t even been to Jacksonville or St. Louis, so going by Greyhound to Washington, D.C. was a big step. It’s all about saying yes to life!”

For Edie Sternberg of Auburn, the trip sounded like a really interesting opportunity. She learned about it through the Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative newsletter and recalls having to think “long and hard” about what her electric cooperative meant to her.

“In those days (1961), I didn’t go to the library to do research, I just thought about how the co-op affected the things we did.

“The trip was wonderful and helped me to view things from different perspectives and helped build my confidence to do things I might not have been comfortable doing before,” explains Sternberg. “To get on a bus with people you don’t know can be intimidating. The trip nurtured a love for writing and travel.”

In fact, after completing an undergraduate degree in zoology and math, Sternberg went on a Peace Corps assignment to teach in the Samoan Islands. And she still enjoys traveling today.

When asked if she had any advice for those thinking about applying for the trip, she says to really enjoy and take in the experience. She also suggests journaling the trip, because it’s not only a good way to jog your memory if you are asked to speak about the experience, but it also is interesting to go back in later years to see what you’ve done.

“I would really encourage students to apply,” Sternberg says. “It’s a really great opportunity. To go and see that we have a wonderful capitol and to meet the legislators and see them as real people might give them a different impression of government. It’s fun to challenge yourself and investigate something you aren’t familiar with.”

Illinois celebrates 55 years

The Youth to Washington tour is important to the electric and telephone cooperatives of Illinois because educated citizens are better citizens and the tour gives them the opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of outstanding young people from rural communities. It familiarizes students with the historic and political environment of our nation’s capitol, and visits with elected officials give them a better understanding of federal government, the political process and democracy in general.

Youth Tour annually brings together more than 1,500 students from 43 states to see where American history all began. The tour was born from a speech at the 1957 National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Annual Meeting by Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, an advocate of electric cooperatives.

“If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capitol where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents,” said the future president.

Illinois electric cooperatives jumped on that bandwagon and began sending students to Washington, D.C. in 1959. Fifty-five years later, electric and telephone cooperatives of Illinois are still participating in this youth character-building experience.

The week-long trip includes stops at Gettysburg along with many historically significant national sites, touring some of the most moving memorials and browsing the campus of our nation’s capitol. Attendees take a ride on a river boat down the Potomac, tour the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia and visit the Supreme Court.

During the trip, students have the opportunity to be selected to represent Illinois on the NRECA Youth Leadership Council (YLC). One student from each state is selected by their peers to go back to Washington, D.C. in July for a leadership workshop and represent the state at the NRECA Annual Meeting. The conference helps to build leadership and public speaking skills and students leave more poised, confident and a better developed leader. And, they develop life-long friendships with representatives from other states.

Willie Wiredhand Students

Even if students are not selected to receive the all-expense paid trip, there is still a chance to go. The Willie Wiredhand program, named after the electric cooperatives mascot, gives students that opportunity. It allows students to pay for the trip on their own. There is a “toolbox” available to help raise the funds needed to participate and includes information on pricing, suggestions on community fundraising, deadlines, etc. Go to to learn more.

Are you interested in finding out more about Youth to Washington? Contact your local electric cooperative to find out specifics for participating. You can also learn more by going to your cooperative’s website or and click “youth” on the blue tool bar.

Youth to Washington

“I think the Youth to Washington trip is a wonderful experience for high school students. When I wrote my essay for it, I never expected to be chosen to travel to Washington, D.C. I will never forget the places I saw, or the history learned, especially the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It is a trip I still reflect on and talk about today.” – Karen Wesselmann Huels, 1987, Clinton County Electric Cooperative

“To me, Youth to Washington was a chance to see Washington D.C. with a group of kids who had a similar rural background as mine. Because we shared a lot of character traits and aspirations, instant connections were made that have lasted for over ten years. I’d recommend this opportunity to all students who are qualified and looking for the chance of a lifetime.” – Kane Mastin, 2003, Spoon River Electric Cooperative

“The NRECA and the Youth Tour were wonderful memories for me and I still stay in contact with quite a few of the members of the group. The NRECA, AIEC, and all the friends that I met through it all, hold a place near and dear to my heart, so thank you! – Luke Sailer, YLC, 2009, Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative

“This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will never forget! It is crazy how in a week a group of small town teenagers can become family while touring our nation’s capitol.” – Brittany Davis, 2014, Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative

“Thanks to Youth Tour, I was able to relive history, learn about government and acquire life-long friends. The feelings I experienced while on the tour are irreplaceable. I would encourage others to apply in order to experience the true feeling of patriotism. What better place to do that than in the beautiful and historic city of Washington, D.C.” – Sarah Locke, 2013, YLC, Shelby Electric Cooperative