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Rural Electric Youth Tour: Shaping our youth for 50 years

The Rural Electric Youth Tour is turning 50! And oh, what a tour it’s been.

“I’ve loved this trip. Every year is a new adventure,” says Mary Tyler Spivey, who directs the Youth Tours for Alabama’s electric cooperatives.

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 people like Spivey stick with it year after year: the students.

“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to work with new groups of students each year,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to see each student grow and discover how they can significantly impact their community through this program. This program truly is changing lives.”

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. “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,” Spivey 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.

As word spread, the program grew—and grew and grew—until no hotel was large enough to house all of its participants.

Karen Bailey, NRECA’s longtime Youth Tour coordinator, said it was a relief when the Hyatt in Crystal City, Va., was built in the late 1990s. Most states’ participants stay there, and some bunk down the street at the Hilton.

“Now, we have 500 rooms at the Hyatt, 200 at the Hilton, and it works out perfectly,” she says.

The prospect of contracting 700 hotel rooms years in advance doesn’t seem to faze Bailey, who has worked on the Youth Tour program for 25 years and has been the main coordinator for the past 15. Since 1999, she’s seen the number of participating states rise from 32 to 43 and the number of students from around a thousand to surpassing 1,600 last year.

“Even through economic changes in the past few years, Youth Tour numbers never went down,” Bailey says. “Many states bring at least two or three more kids each year. Our numbers have always gone up.”

In fact, the Hyatt’s ballroom, where Youth Day is held each year, is bursting at the seams. Already, chaperones are left to stand or watch the presentation in an overflow room—only students get a place to sit.

But it’s a good challenge to have. Youth Day, generally on the Monday of Youth Tour, is when all the state contingents converge to learn about grassroots politics and hear from inspirational speakers. The students share their state pins, often vying to get the most pins or those that are rare, like those from Hawaii’s small group.

“Youth Day is sort of our general session,” Bailey says. “And all the energy that comes with everything is amazing to see. It’s like I’m seeing it for the first time every year.”

“We’re excited to see what our future leaders accomplish,” said Spivey. “And knowing that we played a small part of that is truly something special.”

To find out more about the Rural Electric Youth Tour, visit www.nreca.coop/what-we-do/youthprograms or visit AREA Youth Tours on Facebook and Twitter.