Watchful eyes

When Ohio’s electric cooperatives send about 40 high school students on a weeklong Youth Tour trip to Washington, D.C., each year, it’s often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the students to not only tour the nation’s capital from a perspective that not all visitors are privy to, but also to meet and interact with other co-op students from around the country. 

The trip, however, also provides a unique experience for the chaperones, who get that glimpse of the workings of the capital and also bear witness to the incredible impact the trip has on the students under their watch.

Youth Tour chaperone with group of students

Chaperones often find themselves right in the middle of things on Youth Tour, as Ashley Oakley did with this group at the National Botanical Gardens

Youth Tour chaperones
Youth Tour participants and chaperones
Youth Tour participants
Youth Tour participants

Missy Kidwell, senior service specialist at Consolidated Cooperative in Mount Gilead, is assistant director of Ohio’s Youth Tour program. She had been involved in the process of selecting students to attend the trip for several years before she decided to attend as a chaperone. “Being able to see these students start out as strangers but then cultivate a lifelong friendship by the end of the week was pretty amazing,” she says. “I always knew it was an important experience, but didn’t realize exactly how special it was until I saw it in person.”

Peter Niagu, energy advisor at Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative in Paulding, chaperoned with his wife, Sabrina, in 2015 and 2016. He was similarly enthusiastic about the experience. “Most of these kids had been to D.C. in 8th grade, but the weeklong trip with Youth Tour is different,” he says. “You get to see them have the opportunity to become leaders.”

Once the bus pulls away from the Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives headquarters in Columbus, chaperones and students alike immediately begin to learn more about their cooperative, their country, and each other. “The trip really challenged beliefs I held before I went,” Kidwell says. “I think adults often criticize the youth for their technology use, but I saw firsthand that they aren’t just obsessed with their phones. They are exposed to so much more than most of us were at that age, and technology just helps them navigate that. They’re curious, and they want a better understanding of the world and their country, and that was very apparent and surprising to me on the trip.” 

Some of the teens also discover — or develop — an interest in politics, leading them to declare political science majors in college or aspirations for law school. 

One of the students’ most intriguing opportunities is the chance to ask questions of one of their representatives on Capitol Hill, and chaperones are often blown away by the questions asked by the youth. “I thought the students might be intimidated to ask a question to a government official, but they absolutely shocked me,” says Ashley Oakley, executive assistant at Logan County Electric Cooperative in Bellefontaine, who chaperoned the 2019 trip. “Their questions show a desire to really understand their leaders. They want to know who they are and what they stand for, and I was really impressed by that.”

Students also attend an event where they meet with cooperative students from other states, which often evolves into a rollicking display of state pride. “You’ve got these groups of kids representing cooperatives in 47 or 48 different states,” Niagu says. “It was really neat to see the pride in the kids as they mingle and compete to see who can chant about their state the loudest.”

Not only does the trip provide opportunity for the students to grow and learn together, but the chaperones develop friendships as well. “I still talk to other chaperones to this day,” Oakley says. “The trip allowed me to interact with individuals within the cooperative world that I otherwise wouldn’t. I was able to form connections with people who I wouldn’t typically talk to on a daily basis, like engineers, and learn more about their side of cooperative work.” 

The chaperones all conveyed sincere appreciation and gratitude toward the cooperatives for the profound experience. “The students come back with so much more knowledge and get to grow as leaders on the trip,” Kidwell says. “They walk away with a greater understanding of their cooperative and a different perspective on life because of the trip.”

“I didn’t fully grasp just how important the cooperative world is to our kids and how much cooperatives are doing to make this possible for our outstanding students and for their future,” Niagu says.

Oakley also praised the trip and encouraged everyone eligible to apply. “Youth Tour has such a big impact on these students as individuals — on their dreams, their goals, and what they can provide in leadership,” she says. “The trip showed me what a bright future we have ahead for our cooperatives and our communities.” 

Youth Tour 2022 is scheduled for June 18–24. High school students are encouraged to contact their electric cooperative for more information or to apply to attend.