For many teens, the Rural Electric Youth Tour is full of “firsts.” It may be the first time they left the state, flew on a plane, visited the nation’s capital or have been away from their family for an extended period of time. Even more are seeing and experiencing the larger world through their own eyes, rather than through their parents’ perspective. That’s the most important first, as it’s truly a “leap” to their next phase and where their journey to adulthood begins.
In preparation for Youth Tour, teens learn about cooperatives, our history and grassroots advocacy. Youth Tour sprang from a suggestion of then Senator Lyndon Johnson to a national gathering of co-ops. Johnson felt youth from rural areas would benefit by visiting Washington to see first-hand how government works and gain a wider perspective through the experience. From this idea, Youth Tour evolved. High school juniors selected by their electric co-ops participate in a weeklong trip to the nation’s capital. The program has grown exponentially since its inception and this year, we saw more than 1,800 high school juniors participate from co-ops in 44 states. Our state typically sends a delegation of 70 students.
A highlight of Youth Tour includes a meeting with our congressional delegation. Teens learn first-hand that their elected officials work for their hometown community. Students often have the opportunity to discuss issues with legislators and our chaperons are always impressed with the interactions and questions asked by our students. Youth Tour culminates in a farewell evening featuring national co-op partner organizations from the financial and insurance sectors and NRECA International, an organization bringing electricity to rural areas in developing countries. The evening centers on challenging and inspiring teens to make an impact in their communities. As conversations evolve, so too do the teens’ world view – their definition of community often changes from their home town to a broader meaning.
I can say that nearly all teens who have participated in our Youth Tour program look back with fond memories of an educational, interesting and eventful week. Many make lifelong friends. For a few, Youth Tour is a transformational experience. Parents remark how their child returned noticeably different – more mature, more confident with bigger goals and aspirations; they have a sense of purpose.