A Texas electric cooperative has embraced an ancient tradition to honor the hard work its staff puts in to meet the needs and expectations of its consumer-members.

Sam Houston Electric Cooperative’s challenge coin initiative is providing enduring symbols to highlight employees’ response during restoration challenges and their contributions to providing consistent service that keep the co-op running and electricity flowing.

Launched in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge coin series followed a conversation between Keith Stapleton, the Livingston-based co-op’s chief communications officer, and a member of his staff who is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

“I wanted to find something unique to send to each employee to recognize their dedication to serving our members through such challenging times,” said Stapleton. “I envisioned something tangible that an employee could hold in their hand and tell a story to their children or grandchildren.”

Knowing that staffer Chad Simon lived the “can-do” attitude central to the USMC culture, Stapleton asked Simon to find a vendor that could mint coins for the co-op that would be similar to those he saw on the desk of a military veteran interviewed for a television news story.

Simon, who spent 16 years with the Marines and two years as a military contractor in Kansas before becoming a communications specialist with the co-op, tackled the task as Stapleton discussed design options with the co-op’s senior management. Simon found a company in Florida that could do the job.

“We provided them a good direction for the artwork and the first coin was produced within two months’ time from when Keith first asked me to look into them,” he said.

Every coin features the co-op’s branding symbol—a five-pointed Texas star, framed by the Sam Houston EC logo on its front side. The back of each coin provides details of its commemorative purpose, including the year it occurred, and is stamped with the recipient’s employee number.

“We wanted to personalize them so employees would keep it, display it, and not just put it in a drawer someplace to be forgotten about or discovered years later,” said Simon. “The co-op bought coin holders for employees so they could display them at work or at home.”

The co-op has created four coins in addition to the COVID-19 response coin. Two of them commemorate restoration responses, one for an EF-3 tornado in 2020 and another for a 2021 winter storm. The co-op’s American Customer Satisfaction Index score of 96 for the first half of 2021 prompted production of a fourth coin in the series. That score, among the highest ever recorded for a utility, contributed to an annual score of 92, inspiring the next coin.

Staffers appreciate the recognition, particularly if they have previous military service.

“It made me remember that I had a drawer full of military service challenge coins at home,” said Elina Hobbs, the co-op’s billing coordinator who served in the Navy for 11 years. “This has given me a great opportunity to display them with the new ones.”

The co-op orders about 300 coins for each rendition. Any extras are for directors and members who’ve served the community during times of need.

“They aren’t given out lightly,” said Stapleton. “The coins recognize outstanding achievement, and they inspire employees to continue striving for excellence.”

He sees lasting value in the coins as testaments to the long hours and hard work that call many co-op employees away from home on weekends, holidays and after disasters.

“I have three little grandsons. When they’re a bit older, I plan to give each of them one of my challenge coins,” said Stapleton. “When I do, I will tell them the story behind each one. And I hope they will be proud of their Papa and the things he did while working at Sam Houston Electric Cooperative for almost 40 years.”