David Moorer Hannah Prescott- Margaret Bradford Will Raybon
Millry Clarke Prep Clarke Prep Jackson HS
Anyone who’s looked after a group of 16- and 17-year-olds in Washington, D.C., for Youth Tour knows how challenging and physically exhausting it is, not to mention how hot and humid the nation’s capital can be in the middle of June.
But there’s a reason the program has not just endured but thrived for half a century—and why CWEMC and Alabama Rural Electric Association (AREA) stick with it year after year: the students.
Youth Tour brings together some 1,600 teens from 43 states for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity culminating in Washington, D.C. Students dance on a boat cruise down the Potomac and see the roots of American history. They learn about electric co-ops and grassroots political advocacy. They live in awfully close quarters for up to a week and are given a small taste of freedom and independence. They sleep a little and talk a lot.
These students become college roommates, professional colleagues, lifelong friends and sometimes even spouses. For some, it’s a fun trip that later brings fond memories. To others, Youth Tour inspires kids to discover the adults they’re going to be.
For those accepted into the Youth Leadership Council (YLC), the experience is even richer. These students – one representative from each participating state – work the congressional action center at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) Annual Meeting. They also participate in a special meeting one month after the Youth Tour to delve more deeply into leadership and cooperative grassroots issues.
Much has changed during the past 52 years since Youth Tour was born, but the one constant has been the students, who never fail to be amazed, inspired, humbled and grateful, according to the faithful electric co-op employees who bring new groups back to Washington every year.
For the chaperones and state coordinators, Youth Tour is an enormous amount of work culminating in just a handful of frantic days each year. Flexibility and being able to roll with the punches are must-haves. But it’s a labor of love for most.
“You have to be ready for any change that might happen and deal with any problems that come up, no matter what, for the safety of the children,” Laura Stewart, Alabama statewide Youth Tour Coordinator says. “You have to be ready to take on responsibility for these children.”
“Rewarding” is a common refrain from those involved in the program, from administrators and coordinators to parents and participants—even the bus drivers who stick with a state year after year.
“I’ve had parents come up to me after the program and say, ‘I don’t know what you did, but you brought back a different kid than you took.’ And for parents to say that is gratifying and humbling,” Rick Norris, CWEMC Youth Tour Coordinator says.
Rooted in politics
Youth Tour was born from a speech at the 1957 NRECA Annual Meeting by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. He was a longtime advocate of electric co-ops, having lobbied for the creation of Pedernales Electric Cooperative in 1937 as a young politician in Texas. “If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents,” the future president said.
With that encouragement, Texas electric co-ops began sending summer interns to work in the senator’s Washington, D.C., office. In 1958, an electric co-op in Iowa sponsored the first group of 34 young people on a weeklong study tour of the nation’s capital. Later that same year, another busload came to Washington from Illinois. The idea grew, and other states sent busloads of students throughout the summer. By 1959, the Youth Tour had grown to 130 participants.
In 1964, NRECA began to coordinate joint activities among the state delegations and suggested that co-op representatives from each state arrange to be in Washington, D.C., during Youth Tour week. The first year of the coordinated tour included about 400 teens from 12 states.
Will Raybon from Jackson HS and David Moorer from Millry HS will be CWEMC’s representatives in Washington this year as well as the Alabama Youth Tour trip to Montgomery. Hannah Prescott and Margaret Bradford from Clarke Prep were also selected to attend the Montgomery Youth Tour this month. The contest starts off with students writing as essay. The essays are then judged and around 20 students were selected to interview for these trips.
“I love Youth Tour,” Norris says. “It shows how unique the electric cooperatives are. What we are trying to tell these students is we want you to go as far as you can in your life, and we really do care about you.’”
It’s clear to see the Rural Electric Youth Tour’s first 52 years impacted the lives of many – students and adults.
“We’re excited to see what our future leaders accomplish,” said Norris “And knowing that we played a small part of that is truly something special.”