One in five people in the world have no access to electricity. Case in point: in a small rural village in Guatemala, 54 families were cooking their food over an open flame and illuminating their homes by candlelight.
Today, however, a lightbulb shines brightly inside and outside each dwelling — thanks to the hard manual labor by 10 linemen from four electric cooperatives. Last fall, the linemen spent more than two weeks framing poles, stringing wire and setting up transformers in the village as part of a program supported by the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association and the NRECA International Foundation.
Now 54 families have access to electricity for the first time, which will provide improved health care, better education, safer streets and economic growth, according to the NRECA International Foundation. Working with other member electric cooperatives, the foundation has already sent linemen to other neighboring communities, and last November, Michigan’s Partners for Power team built an electric line extension in Buena Vista, which is located near the Mexico border and about seven hours from Guatemala City.
While the linemen volunteered in Buena Vista last fall, they began preparing for the trip a year ago. Lineman Adam Brewbaker from Great Lakes Energy Cooperative jumped at the opportunity to volunteer overseas along with 17 linemen from his co-op. Only three names were drawn out of a hat from Great Lakes Energy, and Brewbaker says he was thrilled to be selected.
“I was excited and couldn’t wait for the trip to come,” says Brewbaker, who has been working in the trade for 13 years. “I have worked on a lot of hurricanes, and I like the feeling you get from helping people. That was the motivating factor in me volunteering for the Guatemala trip.”
For Brewbaker, the trip to Guatemala was only the second time he had ever traveled outside the United States. As such, he had to apply for a passport and get several vaccinations before flying to Guatemala. Then last November, he and the other nine linemen flew from Michigan to Guatemala City on Nov. 2 with plans to return on Nov. 19.
When they landed, they boarded three trucks rented by the NRECA International Foundation and drove for about two days to the top of a mountain, where they would work for the next two weeks.
“Driving up the mountain was different for me because we were on a narrow road with no guard rails,” he says.
Brewbaker says he was surprised when he finally reached the village. “Seeing the village for the first time was pretty neat, but I didn’t expect people to be living like that,” he says. “They were living in wood shacks or whatever they could throw together, and the only real concrete building was the school house.”
The linemen slept in a small 20 ft by 30 ft storage shed with cots next to the school house. During their down time, the linemen were able to hang out and get to know one another.
“I knew a handful of them because we work closely with their co-ops, but some I didn’t know at all,” Brewbaker says. “During the project, I was able to get to know everyone.”
Working in the Village
Before the linemen even arrived in Guatemala, a volunteer staking crew had already visited the village and laid out the plans for the power line. They then organized three meetings with the Michigan linemen volunteers to review the plans. When they arrived, they surveyed the land and made their final decision about the placement of the poles before putting the line in the air.
The American linemen also received help from the men from a neighboring village, which had already received electricity. To speed up the project, these men set 45 poles in position before the volunteer crew arrived from Michigan. They also helped throughout the job and communicated with the American linemen via three translators provided by the NRECA International Foundation.
“The men from the other villages really knew what they were doing because the power had already been run to them,” Brewbaker says. “They knew how deep to set the pole and how to backfill them and tamp them in. When the men from Buena Vista weren’t working their other jobs, they would also come and help us as well.”
The Michigan linemen, however, were responsible for hours upon hours of hard manual labor framing the poles, stringing the primary and secondary wire to the houses, installing transformers, hanging three security lights in the street, placing interior and exterior lights in each home, and energizing the power line. The linemen also installed outlets inside of the schoolhouse to power a refrigerator, which was once fed by a generator.
On a typical day, the linemen worked anywhere from six to 10 hours a day, depending upon the weather. The women in the village woke up at 3 a.m. to cook the meals for the field crew. At about 7 a.m., they would eat breakfast and then work until the clouds rolled in and they couldn’t see anymore.
“It warmed up during the day to the 60s or 70s, but it would really cool down when the clouds came in,” he says. “During the last two or three days, it rained, and it made everything muddy. It made it hard to work on the hills because they were so steep and we were working in such a remote area.”
Compounding the challenge, the linemen didn’t have access to any heavy equipment or trucks. Instead of working with bucket or digger trucks, they had to rely on small pickup trucks to haul materials, and they all brought their own climbing gear and hand tools.
“We had to do our work the old-fashioned way with climbing belts, hooks, ropes and a lot of muscle,” he says. “It felt good. That is a reason why I wanted to go on this volunteer trip. I wanted to experience the way the old co-op linemen used to do it with everything by hand.”
Celebrating the Electrification
A few days before the linemen energized the line, they walked around the village to ensure that the main breakers were off. They then closed the line, checked the transformers for proper voltage, and ensured that by opening the main breakers, they wouldn’t run the risk of burning someone’s house down. Then they opened the line up and waited until the celebration day to close it in.
Brewbaker says seeing the lights come on inside the villagers’ homes was a moving experience. “It was pretty cool and brought us almost near tears,” Brewbaker says. “It was very rewarding.”
The festivities for the inaugural celebration started early with music from a live band from Mexico. All of the villagers came together to thank the linemen for their contributions.
“They butchered two cows the day before, and we had nice fresh meat,” Brewbaker says. “We also had a big party with lots of speeches, but since I don’t speak a lot of Spanish, I wasn’t sure what was said. I had a lot of fun, however, and it was an experience that I’ll never forget.”
At the ceremony, each of the linemen received a surprise gift from nine men in the village and the village leader — a machete. Brewbaker says his wife, who teaches about Central American history at a junior high school, knew about the significance of the machete to the Guatemalan people.
“It is their livelihood, and for them to give up that part of life to us was very neat,” Brewbaker says. “I have mine hanging on the wall in my home. It was very unexpected for us to each get one.”
During the celebration, the villagers talked about how useful the machetes were in their lives, and they said they hoped the linemen would be able to use them as well. In turn, many of the linemen left the villagers with donated goods collected by Michigan co-op employees as well as personal items like sweaters, flashlights and shoes.
After his experience volunteering overseas, Brewbaker says he would definitely be interested in helping out again to power a village. “If the chance comes in, I’m definitely putting my name in the hat,” he says.
Editor’s note: For more information on the volunteer mission by the linemen and the lives they changed within the community of Buena Vista, Guatemala, visit www.partnersforpower.org.