Nearly 1,800 high schoolers from rural America will be boarding airplanes and buses bound for Washington, D.C., this week to learn about the political process, meet elected officials and gain an up-close understanding of U.S. history.
It's all part of the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour, and NRECA organizers are wrapping up preparations for the event, which runs June 13-21. With around 2,000 participants—about 250 are adult chaperones—this year's group is about the same size as last year's.
Former Youth Tour participants will play a larger role in the formal Youth Day program on June 17. Each year, Youth Tour organizers select about a dozen to return as staff assistants—known as "blue shirts"—to help with logistics. This year, that group will help shape the Youth Day content, said Beth Knudson, youth programs and training manager.
"From writing the scripts to actually keeping things moving onstage, this will be their program," said Knudson. "I'm hoping those in the audience will see them up there and think, 'Wow! Is there a place for me up there someday?'"
Anneliese Taggart, a 2016 Youth Tour participant from Vermillion, South Dakota, will return as a staff assistant for a second year. While on the tour, she met her senator, South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds. Three years later, she's a summer press intern in his Capitol Hill office, having just finished her first year at the University of Alabama.
"I matured a lot during Youth Tour," said Taggart, 18. "And I see it in the Youth Tour kids…At the beginning they're unsure of themselves and by the end they've become more comfortable. It's cool to be on the other side."
And since most Youth Tour participants are on the cusp of voter eligibility, organizers from NRECA's Co-ops Vote initiative will also be on hand to emphasize the importance of this milestone.
"Since many of the students will be turning 18 in the next couple of years, we will be giving them the opportunity to learn more about registering to vote and reminding them to do so on their birthdays," said NRECA's Laura Vogel, senior associate of grassroots advocacy.
Speakers will take the stage twice on Youth Day, once in the morning and again in the evening. Bobby VonBokern, a service technician at Owen Electric Cooperative in Owenton, Kentucky, will describe his adventures as a two-time volunteer in Haiti for NRECA International. He'll also chaperone the 90 students from his state.
"I want them to come away with a realization of how blessed we are as a nation to have access to things that improve our lives, and that if there's ever a way to give back to improve someone else's life, it's our jobs as human beings to give back where and when we can," said VonBokern.
Esther Dominguez, Texas Youth Tour director, will board a charter plane to Washington with nearly 160 students and chaperones from 61 co-ops. It's her 11th annual group, and she will pack her trusty "day-to-day guide" of schedules and other logistics—as well as patience and good cheer.
"I really don't notice the noise," said Dominguez of the din wrought by scores of excited teenagers. "It's like being at a big pep rally. You have to set your mind to have fun alongside the students. It's just normal!"