While 1974 might be most well-known for the resignation of President Richard Nixon, another momentous event occurred that same year. 1974 marked the very first annual Illinois Electric and Telephone Cooperatives Youth Day.

Almost every year since, co-ops across the state have sent high school students within their service territories to Springfield to meet their elected officials, tour the city and learn more about the cooperative program.

I say “almost” because COVID-19 canceled Youth Day for three consecutive years. March 29, 2023, marked the return of Youth Day since 2019, and it was good to be back.

That first Youth Day back in the ’70s brought more than 100 students from 10 Illinois electric co-ops to Springfield. The event was designed to introduce young rural leaders to state government. Fast-forward to 2023, the purpose remained the same, but with nearly double the students and more than double the cooperatives.

This year, nearly 200 students representing 22 electric and telephone co-ops carried on the decades-long tradition of touring the Illinois State Capitol. Just like the thousands of students who came before them, they laid eyes on the magnificent Capitol dome and shook hands with their state senators and representatives.

During lunch, Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs addressed the students. He discussed how he got into politics and encouraged them to follow their passions in life. That afternoon, the attendees visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Lincoln Home National Historic Site.

Although this year’s Youth Day is over, the fun doesn’t stop there. A select number of students have been chosen to continue to learn more during Youth Tour in Washington, D.C., to be held June 16-23, where students representing their electric and telephone cooperatives across the nation will converge for the weeklong trip.

Youth Tour has an even longer history than Youth Day. While Youth Tour officially began in 1964, Illinois co-ops have been sending busloads of students to visit D.C. since 1959. Youth Tour was inspired by former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

A senator from Texas at the time, he spoke at the 1957 National Rural Electric Cooperative Association annual meeting. He said, “If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital, where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents … where they can witness their government in action.”

Co-ops took that message to heart. During the now annual event, students tour our nation’s capital city, meet with members of Congress, gain a deeper understanding of the cooperative program and gain friendships that last a lifetime.

Over the years, thousands of students have participated in Illinois Electric and Telephone Cooperative Youth Programs. These students have grown into leaders themselves by becoming military veterans, business owners and politicians, and in countless other vocations. I look forward to watching this new group of students make history.