There's more to Homer Electric Association than counting kilowatts, conducting board meetings and mailing out bills. This is what selected Kenai Peninsula students have learned every summer since 1995, and what three learned earlier this month through participation in the Alaska Rural Electric Cooperatives Association Youth Rally.
"I learned how much co-ops around the nation do help rural areas that were never provided with electricity before," said Anjani Salonen, one of the three high school students selected by HEA for this year's rally. "And I learned how to be very social with a group of people you're not normally social with."
Zack Hall, a recent Nikiski High School graduate, went to the weeklong camp for a second year. He summed up the program's purpose.
"The whole focus of the Youth Rally is that they want the young leaders," he said. "They are trying to get some of the best young leaders and broaden they're horizons so they can see what rural cooperatives do for their communities and let them see the issues. A lot of times, you just plug into a socket, but you don't see what it takes to really get electricity to you."
Activities at the camp included classes about the origins and organization of electrical cooperatives, ice breaking and team-building activities, a visit to the Idaho Falls Dam near Boise, Idaho, and seminars ranging from electrical safety to drug awareness and community leadership.
Salonen said one of the activities that left a great impression on her was a mock government, where participants took on the roles of U.S. congressional delegates.
"You had to serve a term, just as a congressman would," she said about her brief stint in "office." "Let me tell you. I have a lot more respect for them. You always made someone mad with your decisions because you didn't side with one group or another."
Salonen, who will be a junior this year at Nikiski, attended the 2002 Idaho Youth Rally at Albertson University in Caldwell, Idaho, with Hall and Skyview High senior Lela Wiley. Along with understanding the inner workings of rural utility cooperatives, the trio got an opportunity to flex their leadership muscles and step outside the comfort zone they were used to in Alaska.
"It was a different opportunity," said Hall, who returned to the program as a director, or student leader, after participating in 2001. "Being the one who was in charge of making things happen, instead of just following the schedule, was a little more stressful than last year. Although the activities were basically the same, I got a whole different outlook on the experience."
He said the 10 directors were responsible for planning and organizing the activities and learning exercises for the retreat and guiding the 65 student delegates through the week. This meant attending a March planning session in Boise and continuous correspondence with his fellow directors.
Hall said he learned that taking a leadership role wasn't the easiest thing to do, particularly as an 18-year-old charged with giving direction to his peers.
"Being that the camp is pretty much director-run, we were going pretty much all day," he said. "A couple of us were running on three and four hours of sleep.
"I gained whole lot as leadership goes, especially this year. Of course, you clash every once in awhile because that's the nature of teen-agers. But kids know what to expect. So when they come in, they know what the directors have gone through and the preparation they went through."
They each earned some recognition for being outstanding, and they had fun in the process.
"I thought it was going to be boring," said 17-year-old Wiley. "I expected it would be a lot of classroom work, sitting and listening to speakers."
But she got more than she bargained for, she said.
"I was pleasantly surprised. I had a wonderful time."
And Wiley was selected by her peers and the collective of chaperons from each of the co-ops represented to return to the program next year as a director.
Hall was awarded a $300 scholarship. Salonen received the "Participator Award" and was chosen as Alaska's representative to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association's Youth Leadership Council 2003 Youth Tour in Washington next June where she will have an opportunity to enhance her leadership skills, learn about national issues and the power youth will carry as voting adults and leaders of tomorrow.
In addition, she will get to attend a week-long leadership development program in Lincoln, Neb., in July, and in March 2004, she will go to New Orleans for the NRECA national meeting.
"I'm thrilled," she said. "I feel incredibly lucky."
Homer Electric staff journalist Melissa Payne chaperoned the group and had a chance to observe each of the peninsula representatives in action during the week.
"Their confidence and leadership skills really showed through," Payne said. "They just represented Alaska and HEA really well."
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