Students represent Illinois co-ops during Youth Tour

Each year, hundreds of high school students from across the U.S. embark on an educational and inspirational journey to the nation’s capital city. Sponsored by Illinois’ electric and telephone cooperatives, 54 students departed Springfield by bus on June 14 to Washington, D.C., for a week-long trip of a lifetime.

“Youth Tour is more than just a trip,” said Brooke Gross, Youth Tour coordinator from the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that empowers future leaders to become informed, engaged and active citizens. Many Youth Tour alumni go on to become leaders in their communities, inspired by this experience.”

The event offers a unique opportunity for students to explore the nation’s capital, meet their peers from across the nation, and engage with the political process. Youth Tour not only highlights the importance of electric cooperatives but also fosters civic engagement and leadership skills.

The itinerary for the Youth Tour was packed with both educational and cultural experiences. The students visited major landmarks such as Gettysburg, the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall. They also visited several museums, including the Smithsonian, Air and Space Museum, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. At Arlington National Cemetery, Camden Fairbanks of Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative and Cole Buchanan of SouthEastern Illinois Electric Cooperative (SEIEC) had the opportunity to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“There’s a lot more to Youth Tour than sightseeing,” Gross said. “It also provides students with a deeper understanding of American history and government and the role electric and telephone cooperatives play in the communities they serve.”

One way the students learned about cooperatives was by forming one themselves. The Chip ‘n’ Pop Co-op is an engaging way to provide the Youth Tour participants with experience in understanding the fundamentals of the cooperative business model. “This hands-on activity emphasizes the importance of teamwork,” Gross said. “The students gained practical business skills and a deeper appreciation for cooperatives.”

The students ran their own snack shop by developing a nominating committee, electing a board of directors and hiring a co-op manager. They worked together to manage all aspects of the operation and had an equal say in decision-making, just like the cooperatives that sponsored them on the trip.

The 16-person nominating committee included Adams Telephone Co-Operative’s Adalena Pedro and Ivy Liesen, Clay Electric Co-operative’s Elizabeth Norton and Myra Dunahee, Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association’s Auna McClure, McDonough Power Cooperative’s Adriana Eveland and Ella Bernhardt, McDonough Telephone Cooperative’s Abby Starbuck and Lorelai Mangold, Mid Century Communication’s Morgan Wagner and Noah France, Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative’s (RECC) Kristi Wright, Shelby Electric Cooperative’s Jack McClain, Southwestern Electric Cooperative’s Josie Gehlbach, and Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative’s Lathan Erwin and Sarah Ruhl.

The nominating committee selected the board of directors, which included Carson Contreras of RECC, Hunter Gunderson of SEIEC, Adam Petiz and Emma Beckman of Wabash Communications CO-OP, and Corin Robinson of Western Illinois Electrical Coop. That board of directors then interviewed candidates for the manager position of the co-op and hired Adalena Pedro of Adams Telephone.

In addition, the students voted for one of their peers to represent Illinois on the Youth Leadership Council (YLC). Those interested in becoming Illinois’ YLC representative filled out an application, and five were selected to give a speech in front of their peers. Cole Buchanan, representing SEIEC, was selected as the 2024-25 YLC representative for Illinois. He will represent the state at national and state meetings and events in the year ahead.

“The impact of the Youth Tour goes far beyond Washington, D.C.,” Gross said. “One of the most impactful parts of the Youth Tour is the relationships that students build with their peers from different parts of the state and country. These connections often turn into lifelong friendships.”

While 53 of the students attending represented 26 of Illinois’ electric and telephone cooperatives, Jackson Buehler, son of Ryan Buehler with Adams Telephone Co-Operative, attended in memory of Tootie Holmes. Cooperative Choice Network Credit Union (CCNCU) established a memorial fund in recognition of Holmes’ dedication to Illinois co-ops as a longtime credit union division manager and her support of the Youth Tour program. Monies from the fund are awarded to children of electric and telephone cooperative employees and are used to sponsor students to attend Youth Tour every year. Holmes passed away unexpectedly in 2020 at age 64. She worked for the credit union for 32 years.

In addition, Youth Tour couldn’t happen without its dedicated group of chaperones. A big thank you to AIEC Member Services Manager Brooke Gross, AIEC Executive Assistant Christina Harper, AIEC VP of Training, Safety and Loss Control Jim Miles, AIEC Legal and Government Relations Coordinator Baylee Flowers, her boyfriend Michael Millard, Corn Belt Energy Corporation Director of Human Resources Amber Rippy and 2023 YLC Paris Van Dyke.

2024 Youth Tour delegates

Adams Electric Cooperative

  • Alixandria Bauer
  • Anna Dietrich

Adams Telephone Co-Operative

  • Adalena Pedro
  • Ivy Liesen
  • Maya Nemecek
  •  Jackson Buehler

Clay Electric Co-operative

  • Elizabeth Norton
  • Myra Dunahee
  • Shelly Pierson

Clinton County Electric Cooperative

  • Emily Cirrinione
  • Kara Shoemaker
  • Abby Steinkamp

Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative

  • Lindsey Ozier

Corn Belt Energy Corporation

  • Isabelle Phillips
  • Maxwell Nord

Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative

  • Ainsley Urban
  • Camden Fairbanks
  • Claire Meharry

Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association

  • Allie Robinson
  • Auna McClure

Illinois Electric Cooperative

  • Lilly Pate

EnerStar Electric Cooperative

  • Carly Foley
  • Turner Graham

JCE Co-op

  • Noah Ponce

M.J.M. Electric Cooperative

  • Samantha Carter

McDonough Power Cooperative

  • Adriana Eveland
  • Ella Bernhardt

McDonough Telephone Cooperative

  • Abby Starbuck
  • Celena Mangalaraj
  • Lorelai Mangold

Menard Electric Cooperative

  • Courtney Maslana

Mid Century Communications

  • Morgan Wagner
  • Noah France

Norris Electric Cooperative

  • Alex Birchfield
  • Victoria McMillian

Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative

  • Carson Contreras
  • Kristi Wright
  • Michael Biesenthal

Shelby Electric Cooperative

  • Jack McClain
  • Maya Klotz

SouthEastern Illinois Electric Cooperative

  • Cole Buchanan
  • Hunter Gunderson

Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative

  • Ella Harrell
  • Mckensey Crittendon

Southwestern Electric Cooperative

  • Blake Moore
  • Josie Gehlbach

Tri-County Electric Cooperative

  • Carissa Bailey
  • Isabelle Ritter
  • Timothy Meyer

Wabash Communications CO-OP

  • Adam Petiz
  • Emma Beckman

Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative

  • Lathan Erwin
  • Sarah Ruhl

Western Illinois Electrical Coop.

  • Corin Robinson