How can rural communities attract and retain younger generations? This question was posed to a panel of Youth Leadership Council (YLC) delegates at last week’s annual meeting of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) in Orlando. The YLC members attended the 2018 Electric Cooperative Youth Tour trip to Washington, D.C., and were nominated by their Youth Tour peers to serve on the YLC.
The panel discussion, “Engaging the Next Generation of Leaders at Your Co-op,” was held during two back-to-back sessions on March 12. For the panelists, it turns out a little engagement — including through electric cooperative-sponsored youth programs — can go a long way.
“After participating in the Youth Tour, I really understood that the co-op business model is completely different than other business models, because its more about helping others than helping yourself,” said Caitlin Finley, North Carolina’s YLC delegate who attended the 2018 Youth Tour on behalf of Lenoir-based Blue Ridge Energy. “I was blown away by that.”
Internships at electric co-ops, programs like Youth Tour and co-op scholarship programs are all ways to engage young people and foster a sense of community, according to the panelists, which can help draw them back home after college.
“Co-ops are an excellent way to channel the voice of members, regardless of age,” said Ben Ballard, Nevada’s YLC delegate. “When young people feel their voice is heard, they’ll feel their community is home, and they’ll be more likely to get involved.”
North Carolina’s electric cooperatives offer a range of community programs, including academic scholarship opportunities, Touchstone Energy Sports Camp Scholarships, Bright Ideas Education Grants and the NC Youth Tour.
Finely found the Youth Tour to be inspiring and energizing.
“A lot of my friends at school just want to get away from our hometown — it can dim your fire a little bit. For me, Youth Tour reignited it,” she said. And to fellow high school students unsure of the Youth Tour program, she offers simple advice: “Take the first step. Apply, and see where it goes.”