Brian Barr got a chance to witness what people in rural areas felt like 80 years ago when they received electricity in their homes for the first time.
Barr, assistant director of communications and marketing at Lorain-Medina Rural Electric Cooperative, joined a team of 17 Ohio Electric Cooperative linemen who spent 18 days in Guatemala providing electricity for the first time to two small, impoverished villages. He served as Project Ohio’s documentarian, taking photos and video of the volunteer effort.
The team was welcomed home March 22 at John Glenn Columbus International Airport by a group of about 100 family members, friends, and employees.
The Project Ohio team built distribution lines and installed electrical services, meters, main panels, and internal wiring to more than 140 households in the villages of Las Tortugas and San Jorge.
“I could tell there was some apprehension when we arrived at our work site,” Barr said. “The residents of Las Tortugas and San Jorge had been promised electricity in the past. And every time, their dream of having electricity was dashed. They had been wanting electricity for many years.
“One resident in San Jorge said the thought of ever having electricity was so far from reality that they couldn’t even consider it was possible. When the guys started putting the line up on the poles you could see the mood change. There was always a group of men from the villages willing to pitch in and help any way they could.
“They welcomed us into their homes,” Barr said. “When the system was energized and the security lights came on, the celebration began. Cheering and fireworks could be heard around the village of Las Tortugas.
“Word spread fast and as the linemen made their rounds to turn on the breakers and show people how the switches work, they found that people already flipped the switch and were enjoying their new power.”
An Arkansas team was in charge of the first portion of the project and successfully built five miles of distribution lines, which routed power into the village through rough terrain. The Arkansas team began work in Las Tortugas by lighting up the first 25 homes.
After Arkansas’ execution of a previous 18-day mission, some of the skeptics who had refused to sign up for power saw electrification could be a reality. Seventeen more households signed up, hoping to receive lights from the Ohio team.
Ohio’s linemen were not working alone. Empressa Municipal Rural de Electricidad, the local electric distribution company, arranged for an trade school to supply 15 electrical students who assisted the Ohio team with the internal wiring efforts.
A basic package of four lights and two receptacles were installed in each home with the ability to extend the facilities. A capacity of 150 kilowatts was supplied by EMRE to the 140 homes, which received 120-volt, two-wire service.
As part of Project Ohio, each household also received a water filtration system so they no longer will have to boil water before drinking. Many children also received shoes purchased with $20,000 in donations from Ohio electric cooperative employees and trustees.
Barr said among the challenges facing members of the Ohio team was adjusting to the 95 to 100 degree weather after working several weeks in Ohio’s sub-freezing temperatures. The hotel they stayed in had no hot water but it was a welcome relief after hot, steamy days. They also had to travel about 45 minutes each day to the villages over rocky terrain.
“That was not pleasant at all,” Barr said.
However, seeing the delight on people’s faces when they flipped the switch at their homes for the first time will be a memory he will never forget.
Lorain-Medina Rural Electric Cooperatives serves 16,300 members in Lorain, Medina, Ashland, Wayne, and Huron counties.