Nearly seven months before NRECA's 2019 Electric Cooperative Youth Tour of Washington, D.C., several co-op executives involved in the event got up early and grabbed their phones, determined to save big money.

"We have to buy airplane tickets for 50 kids and chaperones," said Liz Fiddes, director of member services and education for the Colorado Rural Electric Association. Fiddes coordinates Youth Tour programs for co-ops in Colorado and Wyoming, so even before local co-ops select the high-schoolers who will attend, she has to make arrangements to get them to the nation's capital.

Southwest Airlines opened its phone lines for summer travel bookings at 6 a.m. Eastern time on Nov. 15. At 4 a.m. Mountain time, Fiddes joined an unknown number of group ticket shoppers who dialed in early—some with multiple phones—seeking travel discounts.

"Our round-trip tickets are roughly $350 apiece, which is a bargain. But the price we pay for that bargain is that we're flying home at 6 a.m. on our last day in Washington, which is going to be a killer on those kids, actually on all of us," said Fiddes. "The next flight out would have increased my cost by about $10,000."

While statewide associations coordinate Youth Tour and work year-round with NRECA to create once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the young people who participate, individual distribution co-ops and their G&Ts pick up the costs.

"Some of us were on the phone at 5 a.m., and a few of us had our tickets secured within three hours," said Brenda Kleinjan, director of communications and member relations for South Dakota Rural Electric Association. Kleinjan has led the state's Youth Tour delegation since 2000.

"When I first started, we were under 1,200 total participating delegates, and over the years, we grew to 1,500. Now there are about 1,800 delegates and with chaperones from across the country. Our total count is around 2,000," said Kleinjan, whose group has grown to 45 students and six chaperones. "That's bigger than most of the communities in South Dakota."

Youth Tour directors gathered in Arlington, Virginia, in early November to discuss the 2019 event and the changes being made to accommodate larger crowds. Programs that once took place during a single Youth Day session will again be split into morning and evening sessions.

"For the first time ever, we've been able to arrange for group passes for all 1,800 delegates to visit the Holocaust Museum," said Beth Knudson, NRECA's youth programs and training manager.

About 25 NRECA staff, including members of the association's Youth Leadership Council who previously attended Youth Tour as high school students, also assist with the events.

Every delegation plans very full schedules, which include visits with their lawmakers and tours of museums and historic sites in Washington area. Some visit other sites in the region such as Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania and Civil War and military monuments and museums in Northern Virginia.

While Youth Tour participation has involved delegations from more than 40 states for several years, high-schoolers from certain states have not participated due to scheduling conflicts with required standardized testing.

"Our dates in 2019 will be June 14 through June 20," said Knudson. "We expect even more participation this year, and it's my lofty goal to someday welcome delegates from all 47 states served by NRECA member cooperatives."

Exposure to the workings of the federal government and the opportunities to see the nation's treasures or performances by elite military honor guards are experiences that often inspire college application essays.

"We promote the life skills that today's generation value, including building relationships, developing leadership skills, and enhancing their résumés with the co-op trips," said Shana Read, youth tour coordinator for Kansas Electric Cooperatives.

For many of the students selected for Youth Tour, the trip is the farthest they've been away from home without their families, and they discover that many rural communities are different from their own.

"We were with some rural kids from South Carolina, and they were lamenting how rural they were until they realized that in South Dakota we have a space where students were three hours away from the nearest McDonald's," said South Dakota REA's Kleinjan.

The weeklong trip also provides opportunities to meet and build lasting friendships with rural and exurban youngsters from other states, said Kleinjan. "I've had a South Dakota student and a Colorado student wind up at college together in Nebraska as roommates. They met on Youth Tour, and stayed in touch their senior year and both of them decided to go to school in Nebraska."