NCC Powerline Alumni Help Around the Globe

When an individual makes the decision to become an Electric Lineman, it is typically due to a passion for the outdoors, a lack of desire to sit in an office for forty hours each week, or a need for variety in their work. Linemen are constantly working hard to keep electricity functioning in a safe and effective manner. When the weather is so severe that the power goes out, they brave the storm and put in the extra hours to quickly restore it. One could say that linemen are servants of their communities—the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association International and State Electric Cooperatives give linemen the opportunity to be servants of the globe.

Since 1967, the Powerline program at Northwest Iowa Community College has educated over 2,000 alumni and over the years, many have been involved in projects within the United States through the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association, or NRECA. In 2019, three NCC Powerline Alumni were presented with the opportunity of a lifetime—to participate in the first NRECA International project for Iowa’s Electric Cooperatives. This global service project was designed to extend electric service for the first time to the village of Salina 7 Cerros in north central Guatemala. When the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives reached out to all eleven of the state’s electric cooperatives for volunteers, three linemen, Mike Berkenpas, Quentin Fischer and Bob Ruby, quickly agreed to be involved.

Mike Berkenpas, a 2006 graduate of the Powerline program, is employed as the Lead Lineman for Northwest Rural Electric Cooperative in Le Mars, IA. When Mike decided to follow in a family member’s footsteps and become a lineman, he never imagined opportunities like this one would arise. A fellow lineman on his crew had previously participated in a NRECA hurricane relief project, and Mike had been longing for an opportunity like this ever since. Once Mike had the chance to volunteer, he signed on without hesitation.

The Electric Cooperatives of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin joined forces with NRECA International to formulate Partners for a Brighter Tomorrow, which included the team of twelve electric co-op linemen from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, that would complete the international project and the funding to make it possible. Each state assigned a lead lineman to be in charge of planning the project, and Mike happily agreed to represent Iowa.

In June of 2019, Mike and the lead linemen from Illinois and Wisconsin traveled to Guatemala for the first time to formulate plans for the project. This trip was planned to be one week in length, and due to the extremely poor road conditions in Guatemala, it took two days alone to simply drive to the village. Upon finally arriving in the village of Salina 7 Cerros, Mike was shocked by the living conditions. Immediately he noticed the creek running through the village and observed that it was where the citizens bathed, did laundry and gathered their drinking water. The homes consisted of dirt floors and straw roofs, and a few pieces of wood served as a bed. These people had virtually nothing. Seeing the living conditions on this initial trip gave Mike a deeper desire to help the people in the village. He traveled back to the United States humbled and ready to return to Guatemala with the team of linemen and get the project started in the coming months.

Quentin Fischer is the second alumnus that participated in the project. Quentin, a 2009 graduate of NCC’s Powerline program, is employed as a Journeyman Lineman for Linn County REC in North Liberty, IA. Becoming a lineman was an easy choice for Quentin as he loves the outdoors and he also has a family history in electrical work. He has a passion for service work, including a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, and a national hurricane relief project in Georgia. Quentin stated, “Being able to have a positive impact during hard times is life-changing. Now every opportunity I get to help others, I am on board!” He volunteered for the project in a heartbeat.

In October of 2019, the team of twelve linemen traveled to Guatemala to begin the venture, many of them meeting for the first time. Despite three of the four Iowa linemen being NCC Alumni and working for Iowa Cooperatives, Mike, Quentin and Bob had never met. After experiencing delayed flights and intense culture shock, the team arrived at their hotel in Playa Grande, Ixcan, the closest city to the village of Salina 7 Cerros.

For Quentin, the first day of the project was very overwhelming. The living conditions in the village were much worse than he had expected. He noticed things like the outhouses being placed on the top of a hill that drained into the creek, the only source of water. However, despite some of the living conditions, he observed the people were extremely happy. He was saddened by the living conditions, but he couldn’t help but be uplifted by the attitudes of the residents. This drove his motivation to complete the project and help to improve the living conditions for these individuals. When speaking about his encounters with the residents, Quentin stated, “It was a very eye-opening experience and a great reminder that we don’t need material things to be happy in life.”

The project was anticipated to take the crew 12 working days and consisted of installing transformers, stringing wire, building a distribution system, and finally, wiring 42 homes, a school and the village’s health post. Because no bucket trucks were available on site, all of this work would be done by hand.

As the linemen began, the residents watched with excitement. Many children would sit and watch eagerly and, if the linemen needed an extra hand, the men in the village would quickly drop anything to assist them. While driving into the village each day, they were greeted by children lining the sides of the roads in excitement. They felt as though a parade was being held in celebration of them, so they made it a true parade and bought candy to throw to the children each day.

Bob Ruby was the third alumnus who participated in the project. Bob, a 1994 graduate of NCC’s Powerline program, is employed as a Line Foreman at Access Energy Cooperative in Mount Pleasant, IA. Although Bob spent some of his early career working in coal mines, he always knew he would become a lineman. His favorite part about this career is having the opportunity to help other areas and communities in need, so has always been quick to volunteer for service projects, including this one.

With over twenty years in the industry, Bob has extensive experience working on a crew. He was very impressed with this particular group of volunteer linemen and stated he could not have asked for a better group of guys to work with. As a result, the project was completed ahead of schedule, in just seven days. “After we completed wiring all of the homes, our crews went back through to ensure the light switches were working. In about 90% of the homes we re-entered, the residents were already playing with the light switches. It was a great feeling to see them smile when the lights came on,” stated Bob.

In the final days of the eighteen day venture, an inauguration was held that officially marked the electrification of Salina 7 Cerros. Along with the village residents and the linemen, representatives from NRECA International, the state electric cooperatives, and the local municipal, Empresa Municipal Rural de Electricidad, were also in attendance. A ribbon-cutting and presentation of plaques to the twelve linemen were included in the celebration.

At the conclusion of this celebration the Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin Electric Cooperatives were able to donate backpacks filled with school supplies to each of the 63 school-aged children and an Ecofiltro water filtration bucket to each household, which should supply clean water for two years. Through additional donated funds, they were also able to obtain at least one pair of shoes for each child in the village and a loudspeaker for use at the village’s school.

Although it is going to take a long time for the residents to fully utilize the electricity installed, having lights in the homes, access to refrigeration for the storing of food, and the possibility to dig a well for access to safe water are huge benefits that this community now has available.

Overall, the three NCC graduates agree that their favorite part of this experience was the residents’ reactions to the lights coming on and receiving the donation of supplies. They are extremely thankful to NRECA International and the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives for making these opportunities possible, and are also thankful for the Powerline program at Northwest Iowa Community College for being a starting point in their journeys. They each hope to volunteer for future projects, perhaps some day traveling back to the village of Salina 7 Cerros. The hard work and spirit of these alumni help make the world a little bit projects and perhaps someday travel back to the village of Salina 7 Cerros. Until then, they know they played a role in making the world a little bit brighter.

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