Missouri Co-Op Linemen Volunteer in Bolivia

Jim McCarty, Union, isn’t old enough to remember “The Day the Lights Came On” in any community across America, but he was able to experience it firsthand in Bolivia last year when a team of volunteers from electric cooperatives in Missouri made a mission trip to a couple of small villages in Riberalta in the Amazon region for an electrification project they called Energy Trails.

As editor of Rural Missouri magazine, the official publication of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, McCarty was on the trip to document it, capture photos of the project from start to finish. When the day came that they could flip a switch and bring power to all of the homes, it was a moving and festive scene.

They called it Inauguration Day, and there were chairs set up in the street for a couple of hundred people, along with a stage and microphone, said McCarty, a 1980 graduate of St. Clair High School, ’82 graduate of East Central College and ’84 graduate of the University of Missouri.

In the hours it took for the sun to go down, people were giving speaches and there was Bolivian music playing.

“Overhead there were 10-inch long 220-watt lights hanging . . . at dark, we flipped the switch and the bulbs came on. Tears flowed and the music kicked on again,” McCarty recalled.

Bolivians were so excited that they were grabbing linesmen and hugging them, taking selfies and group photos.

“Then we went house to house to house to flip switches. People would test them out. It was a very emotional time,” said McCarty, noting there were quite a few tears from the U.S. linesmen who were involved in the project.

People living in these villages had had electricity before with generators, but it was limited and dangerous, McCarty explained. They understood that having safe and reliable electricity in their homes would greatly improve their way of life.

Electricity lets children attend school on a regular basis, it raises the standard of living for the entire family by lightening the burden for adults and providing running water, refrigeration and sanitation previously unavailable, said McCarty. It also saves money for families who relied on expensive generators for just a few hours of power.

A new team of volunteers from electric co-ops in Missouri will continue the effort to light up Bolivia with a second mission trip there next month. The project will take place Dec. 3-15 in a mountainous region of Bolivia in the state of Cochabamba at Chapisirca.

The region has a poverty rate of 60 percent, and it is estimated that 285,000 people there do not have electricity, said McCarty, who will be traveling with the team again to document it.

Other electric co-op linemen have volunteered to work in Haiti, Guatemala and South Suda.

These electrification projects are made possible by a partnership between the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s International Program.

Worldwide, more than 1.6 billion people live without electricity, said McCarty. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s International Program seeks to brighten the lives of people in these developing nations by building power lines and donating equipment and materials that are no longer needed by U.S. electric co-ops.

The original purpose of the International Program when it was started in 1962 was to share lessons learned by U.S. electric cooperatives with those in developing nations, said McCarty. And for more than 50 years, it has been doing good all over the world.

Energy Trails

For quite a while there have been volunteers from Missouri going to places like Haiti and Guatemala to do electrification work. They would work for two weeks, but never see the end result, “the day the lights came on.” As such, it was never very satisfying, said McCarty.

“So this concept came up to put together a team to go in and do an intense project and take it all the way to the end,” he said.

Linemen from Missouri teamed up with linemen from Oklahoma for a mission trip to Riberalta. It was the first joint mission between the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives and the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives.

With a population of around 80,000, Riberalta is located near the border of Bolivia and Brazil and surrounded by the Amazon jungle, which means it’s not easily accessible.

“It was tough getting there,” said McCarty. “Maybe in the dry season there are some roads that you can get through, but pretty much those communities are accessible only by air.”

The area also is extemely hot, and without electricity, there are no fans or refrigeration to cool things down.

“In five minutes, we were ringing wet. You could not drink enough water,” said McCarty. “The first few days we ran out of water within a couple of hours. They just couldn’t supply enough.”

With concerns over the zika virus (although they didn’t see any mosquitoes, since it was the dry season) and also sunburns, the workers wore long-sleeved shirts to protect themselves.

The homes in the villages each had a hole dug in the front yard as a well, since electricity is needed to have indoor plumbing. Some of the wells had a few boards around them to mark the holes, but many had nothing, so once night falls, it is dangerous to walk around outside, said McCarty.

‘You’ve Never Seen People So Productive’

For more than 30 years, McCarty has been working for Rural Missouri magazine, so he’s familiar with how the linemen of the electric co-ops work. He’s always known they have a strong work ethic, but he was even more impressed by their work in Riberalta, especially considering they didn’t have a lot of the machines and equipment they use for jobs at home in America.

“You’ve never seen people so productive,” he remarked. “I think they can build anything. They don’t need any direction. They just looked around a little bit and then just go to work.

“I saw them lugging maybe 80 to 100 pounds of tools from pole to pole, when they were just absolutely beat, just literally dragging these tools along, and yet they go right up the pole and get to work.”

Some of the linemen are former service members, and that training and can-do spirit was obvious, said McCarty.

“And it was infectious. We had the Bolivian people working with us. They were excited and doing everything they could to help. They really liked seeing the different ways of doing things that we had,” said McCarty.

The poles the linemen worked with in Bolivia are eucalyptus wood, which they found incredibly hard to climb compared to those in the United States.

“They had to jam the spikes on their shoes in, and the poles were also very small, so they swayed a lot at the top,” McCarty said.

Linemen ‘Open Their Wallets’

The Missouri and Oklahoma linemen were assisted in the project by a local electric cooperative. For villagers in Riberalta to join the local electric co-op, the cost was the equivalent of $40. That covered their membership fee and paid for their home to be wired. They also received two lights, two switches and two plugs, said McCarty.

The cost was beyond what some of the families could afford, so the American linemen “just opened their wallets,” McCarty said.

And that was only the beginning. The men also passed the hat to collect more than $1,000 to buy enough streetlights to provide for the towns, and they left their tools behind for the people who will be running the local cooperative.

On the airplane ride home, the linemen wanted still to do more, so they suggested putting some of the thousands of photos that McCarty had captured together in a book that they could sell to fund future projects.

“We wanted to keep this thing going, because there’s still an awful lot of work to be done there,” said McCarty.

‘A Brighter Bolivia’

After arriving home Aug. 17, McCarty had the book, “A Brighter Bolivia,” completed by the end of September. The Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives had 1,000 copies printed by Walsworth Publishing in Marceline.

The book, which sells for $20 each, includes chapters on the history of electric cooperatives, the Energy Trails project, the workers and the people of Bolivia.

Copies of “A Brighter Bolivia” are available at Neighborhood Reads bookstore in Downtown Washington, or online at http://ruralmissouri.coop/merchandise.php.

Copies also can be purchased by sending a check to Rural Missouri, P.O. Box 1645, Jefferson City, MO 65102 or by calling 573-659-3423.

Price is $20 plus $6 shipping and handling, and all proceeds go to support the Missouri Electric Cooperative International Program.

The Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives also recently held a linemen rodeo at the office in Jefferson City to help raise funds for these mission trips. The event raised around $25,000.

Teams of linemen from around the state competed in performing the skills they do day-to-day.

The fundraising is used to pay airfare and lodging expenses, said McCarty. Most of the materials used in these projects is donated.

Incredible Light for Photography

McCarty, who was just inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame a few weeks ago, said he expected to face some challenges taking photos of the work in Bolivia.

“From a photographer’s perspective, the worst time to shoot is from 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m. when the light is really strong and over head, and that is the time we were there for the most part,” he said.

“But there is something about the light down there. I don’t know if there was all this dust in the air and it screened it, or the nearness to the equater, but the light was incredible.”

Every night he would look through the photos he captured that day and was always amazed by the quality of the light.

Elevation Will Be the Challenge for This Trip

For this second mission trip to Bolivia next month, the challenge will be the elevation and the less oxygen that comes with it. The region is two hours up into the mountains.

“I found it on GoogleEarth, and it looks like the moon,” McCarty remarked.

“There is a little village there, and we are going out even beyond that to clusters of homes and ranches.”

Their lodging will be at around 12,000 feet, but much of the work will be done around 13,000 feet. Compare that to the highest point in Missouri, which is 1,700 feet.

“The airport in La Paz, (Bolivia,) is the highest airport in the world,” said McCarty, “and when we stepped off that plane last time it felt like a sledgehammer between the eyes. If you bent over and stood up, you saw stars.”

Some of the volunteers had headaches from the lack of oxygen.

“The plan is to spend a couple days in Coachabomba, about 5,000 feet, get acclimated there, go up, do some work and as needed, come back down the mountain,” said McCarty.

This project, which is being called Brighter Bolivia, will again bring electricity to homes. The team, selected from among 14 volunteers at electric cooperative systems, includes linemen:

Casey Schwartze, Three Rivers Electric Cooperative, Linn;

Danny Derry, Grundy Electric Cooperative, Trenton;

Eric Peeper, NW Electric Cooperative, Cameron;

Jared Kelley, SEMO Electric Cooperative, Sikeston;

Jonathan Schussler, Osage Valley Electric Cooperative, Butler; and

Tim Gilbert, Boone Electric Cooperative, Columbia.

Craig Moeller, from the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, will be the team leader.

They will build 3.5 miles of power lines, and a local electric cooperative in Bolivia, Cooperativa Rural De Electrificación, will assist by setting 70 poles.

‘Come Back Motivated’

McCarty will travel with the mission team to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to document this trip as well, posting photos and stories on social media and in Rural Missouri magazine.

Although the work is being done to help people in Bolivia, there are benefits to the team of volunteers as well.

“They come back motivated,” said McCarty. “Last time, they came back with ideas of how they did things down there and maybe we can apply some of that here.

“I think everybody went down there thinking, ‘We’re going to teach these Bolivians a lot,’ but they definitely taught us a lot things.

“They learn leadership skills, and without question every single one of them who went on the trip came back a changed person, more appreciative of what we have, hungry to learn more about the rest of the world and all of those things,” McCarty added.

“I think these projects will continue. There is a lot of support for that, and definitely a lot of need.”