Turning on the lights: County utility worker helps with effort in Guatemala

Flipping on a light switch or plugging in an appliance used to be a dream for families in the small village of El Zapotillo in the mountainous Cuilco, Huehuetenango region of Guatemala.

But after the recent work of 16 electric cooperative linemen from Indiana, the nearly 200 people in the village have electricity for the first time.

Through Project Indiana: Empowering Global Communities for a Better Tomorrow, the linemen spent the second half of March electrifying the village. They electrified 60 homes, a school, a church and a medical clinic with four miles of primary line, 27 miles of secondary line, 36 anchors and six transformers.

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All of that was done by hand and without the aid of modern conveniences, such as the bucket trucks the linemen normally use in their everyday job.

David Guthrie, a Class A lineman with Jackson County REMC, was among the group. He learned in September that he was chosen to go.

“I was really excited, but I didn’t know what to expect,” the 38-year-old Medora resident said. “I thought it would be something good to do for other people, and I’m glad I went because it really was a humbling experience, to say the least.”

This was the third Indiana group to go in the past five years, but it was the first time for a Jackson County REMC employee to go.

Indiana Electric Cooperatives accepted names of those interested in going, conducted the drawing and then began coordinating the trip.

Once Guthrie learned he was selected, he had to get a passport, a physical and several shots for traveling. He also did some running and training to prepare for the higher elevation, as the village has an altitude of about 9,000 feet.

In mid-March, the linemen boarded a plane at Indianapolis International Airport and headed to Miami, Florida. They then took a plane to Guatemala City, where they met up with four interpreters and got into six four-wheel drive vehicles with their equipment in tow.

The trek to the village took a couple of days because the roads went from blacktop to rugged.

Once it was time to begin working, the group was split into teams of four or five people and rotated tasks. They worked at least 12 hours a day, and it took eight days to finish the work, Guthrie said.

Each home received a breaker box, three lights, two receptacles and a few light switches.

“It’s a process to get one house electrified,” Guthrie said. “You’ve got to bring the wire to the house and get the secondary wire to every home, have it ready before you can even energize the line. Then once you have it all hot to the house, then you go back to the house, maybe a different one next time, and put their meter base on and their breaker box. Then you just hook them right up.”

One of the linemen taught two of the locals how to wire so they can fix any future issues in the village.

Guthrie said the homes are simple. They either have a concrete or dirt floor, and the ceiling is about 6 feet high. If a home has a second story, a ladder made out of a log is used to go upstairs.

“They were very resourceful. They use everything of what they have,” Guthrie said. “But the homes were neat, I will say that. All of their cooking utensils were always cleaned and hung if they weren’t used. There were brooms around everywhere. They were taking very good care of their stuff. They were proud of what they have.”

The school, which is where the linemen slept each night, has block walls, a concrete floor and a metal roof.

Guthrie said he didn’t get a chance to go in the church, but he saw the building, which is about 30 feet wide and 60 feet long.

Besides providing electricity to the medical clinic, at the end of the trip, the linemen gave them the medication they brought with them. A translator wrote in Spanish what each item was.

“The kids, when they get sick, that’s all they’ve got. They’ve got to figure out some way to heal them up,” Guthrie said of the clinic. “I guess you cannot put your head around it until you see it with your own eyes.”

Setting the utility poles was a process, too, Guthrie said.

To get the poles there, a semi was driven as far as it could until the road became too treacherous. Then, 15 to 20 men from the village would tie a rope around each pole and carry them to where they could be set. Each 35-foot-long pole weighed about 500 pounds.

Guthrie said he became nervous on the first pole he climbed because he didn’t find a brand — used to stamp the size and height of the pole — at the 10-foot mark. It wound up being a couple of feet higher.

He was afraid the pole wasn’t set deep enough, but he was able to measure it and determine it was OK.

One difference with climbing poles in the village compared to the Jackson County area was the steepness of the hills.

“You take off walking around a hill here, they are kind of rolling, and some of them are steep,” he said. “But those (near the village), it was like they were steep, and they just kept going.”

The air made it a little bit heavier and harder to breathe, he said.

“I had never worked in conditions like that before. The air was clean, but it was thin, and you could get out of breath,” Guthrie said. “It didn’t take long to get used to it. Your body can adjust to it faster than what I thought.”

Guthrie placed a silver pole tag reading “Jackson County REMC, Brownstown, IN, David Guthrie, 2017” on one of the poles.

“Somebody else might be down there one day from the United States and see that,” he said.

The people of the village were appreciative of the work of the linemen. Guthrie received a walking stick from the mayor and a decorative rock from another man as tokens of appreciation.

Guthrie learned some people had bought appliances after they were told in 2013 that they were going to get electricity, but that wound up falling through.

“So they were chomping at the bit,” he said of the people finally being able to use their appliances.

Guthrie said it also was a good experience working with the other linemen.

“Everybody put out a good effort, I’ll say that,” he said. “Everybody knew that if we didn’t get done, it was going to get left undone most likely, so I think everybody gave a great effort and maybe a little bit more than they even would normally just to make sure that those people had lights.”

Nicole Ault, communications and public relations specialist with Jackson County REMC, said the company was excited to have Guthrie be selected to go.

That ties into one of the company’s seven principles, cooperation among cooperatives, which says cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

“That was just a great way to follow the principle because all of the cooperatives worked together for this project,” Ault said. “We were just proud of David for being willing to put his family on hold, his life on hold to go improve the life of others.”

A group of linemen from Oklahoma plans to go to Guatemala in October, and Indiana plans to send another group in a couple of years.

Guthrie said he hopes someone else from Jackson County REMC will want to apply to go.

“I think everybody should see it,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. Nobody that went will.”

For Guthrie, who has been with the company full time for 12 years, it was a life-changing experience.

“It really has changed the way that I look at my children and see the things that they do, that they have to do compared to children (in the village). When they woke up, it was time to go to work because they had to do stuff to keep their family going,” he said.

“Hopefully, with taking electricity to the village there, it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but one of these days, I would like for them to have nice things and not have to work so hard just to survive,” he said. “I hope that comes with it.”

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Sixteen electric cooperative linemen from Indiana recently went to Guatemala to provide electricity to El Zapotillo, a developing area in the Central American country.

They electrified 60 homes, a school, a church and a medical clinic with four miles of primary line, 27 miles of secondary line, 36 anchors and six transformers.

This marked the third time Indiana Electric Cooperatives has sent a group to Guatemala.

In August 2012, 28 lineworkers from 17 of Indiana’s electric cooperatives traveled to a remote mountain range in Guatemala. The crews spent four weeks working across the rugged mountainous terrain to construct more than 20 miles of power lines and bring electricity to three villages.

In April 2015, a crew of 14 lineworkers electrified the village of Sepamac. Approximately 180 homes were electrified and received power generated at a regional hydroelectric generation facility.

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To see photos from the Indiana linemen’s recent trip to Guatemala, visit 2017projectindiana.shutterfly.com.

For information about Indiana Electric Cooperatives, visit indianaec.org.

For information about Jackson County REMC, visit jacksonremc.com.