“$10,000 is a big chunk of change.”

Sergio Contreras laughs with a mix of pride and joy about his five-figure college scholarship from Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative. But ask him how his parents feel about it, and his demeanor changes.

“I’m sorry if I get emotional, because that’s a …” His voice trails off for a moment. “That’s a big thing.”

Contreras, 19, is a freshman at Florida’s Pasco-Hernando State College and the first member of his family to go to college. He was one of 100 winners of a $10,000 scholarship from Withlacoochee in 2015, the first time the Dade City, Fla., co-op’s scholarship program hit the $1 million mark. In 2016, it’s poised to be $1.1 million.

“Nobody else does that,” says David Lambert, manager of member relations. “It’s going to almost guarantee these kids a leg up and an opportunity that they otherwise would have never had.”

There are a lot of things Withlacoochee does that no other co-op does, often redefining the principle of “commitment to community.” It recently won the first NRECA Electric Cooperative Purpose Award, and if you spend a day at the co-op, it’s easy to see why. Working there is no 9-to-5 affair. Employees can be found chairing community organizations, attending meetings before breakfast and well into the evening, building Habitat for Humanity homes on weekends. And that only scratches the surface.

“There are a lot of utilities in Florida that provide reliable, affordable energy,” says Billy E. Brown, Withlacoochee executive vice president and general manager. “We don’t want to be just a utility. We want to do whatever we can do to improve the lives of the members that we serve.”

A Place Where Time Stood Still

Atop that list: its efforts in Lacoochee, Fla., where the co-op almost single-handedly took a long-neglected community under its wing and is helping turn it from a center of poverty, crime, and despair to a bastion of hope.

Barely an hour from either Tampa or Orlando, the big difference from those cities is that in Lacoochee, the good times ended in 1959 when the sawmill closed and jobs vanished. Withlacoochee took over the town’s electric service from investor-owned Progress Energy in 2007.

“We spent at least $3 million rebuilding the system there because it was in a condition that we did not want our members to have,” Brown recalls. “We probably will never get a return on that investment, but that’s our obligation to provide the service.”

Then they did a whole lot more.

In July 2010, Withlacoochee held a “Visioning Day.” Community leaders took reporters on a tour of Lacoochee, showing them the dirt roads just off U.S. 301. A converted chicken coop served as one woman’s home; other houses had cesspools next to wells because there were no water lines. You could buy liquor or mail a letter, but not much else.

Nearly six years later, change is evident in Lacoochee. Roads are being paved; shotgun shacks are being replaced with proper homes; water lines are coming; crime is down.

At the center of it all is the new community center that Withlacoochee pushed to build—doing much of the heavy lifting to raise the required $2 million.

The community center is much more than just a home for the Boys and Girls Club. For one thing, it’s a place where residents can get basic medical care that they might otherwise do without.

Health Care Where It's Desperately Needed

Walk into the center’s clinic and you could easily think you’re in a doctor’s office, from the examination tables down to the jars packed with tongue depressors. Open every Wednesday, the clinic is operated by Premier Community HealthCare, which has a mission of providing accessible health care services for all.

“Our patient flow has been pretty steady. It’s about 12 to 15 patients a week,” says MisIvy Reittie, outreach and enrollment specialist. Generally staffed by a physician assistant—a doctor rotates there as well—the clinic treats patients ages 4 and up, accepts Medicaid and other insurance, and has a scale of fees from $20 to $75 per visit, based on household size and income.

The community center is one of several Premier locations in the area, but it’s sometimes the only option. The Dade City location is just 15 minutes away, but for many residents, it might as well be in Timbuktu.

“It’s because of the bus system. This is a very rural area, so sometimes it can be unreliable,” Reittie explains. And because of that, health needs often go neglected.

“Even something as basic as a general check-up is really important,” Reittie says. “I’ve seen people down here that are homeless and they live in a friend’s shed, and they haven’t been to the doctor in years, and they just found out that there’s a clinic here. They really appreciate the fact that we’re here.”

'It Touches Your Heart'

Elena McCullough retired from the U.S. Coast Guard as a lieutenant after 24 years, but don’t look for her lounging poolside. Try the Lacoochee community center instead.

McCullough, president of the Pasco Hernando Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, works part time for the Pasco County Housing Authority doing community outreach.

“There’s a soft spot for young people in my heart,” she says, sitting in the center’s modest library. “I have always been very happy about helping youth to look at possibilities that they never knew existed because my world ended up being so successful, and I just like to share and encourage them.”

McCullough covers several neighborhoods, but Lacoochee, she says, is extra special.

“It touches your heart,” she says, recalling Eric Martinez, 18, who grew up in Lacoochee. His father abandoned him, his mother, and his two siblings seven years ago.

“I told myself, ‘I don’t want this for the rest of my life,’” Martinez recalls as his half-brother JuanJose, 3, plays nearby. “Thankfully, in high school I found friends that had the same mindset. They wanted something good for themselves. And together, we’d always try to take on the tough classes, do volunteer work, anything we needed to sort of help get us to the next level.”

An aspiring immigration lawyer, Martinez is a freshman at Pasco- Hernando State College, in no small part because of a $10,000 Withlacoochee scholarship—and McCullough’s 11th-hour efforts.

“The scholarship was due on a Friday. His mom called me on a Wednesday. I met Eric on a Thursday. And I said, ‘Eric, you know this scholarship is due tomorrow,’” McCullough recalls.

Martinez didn’t have a computer at home, so McCullough took him to her office to print an essay he’d written earlier. He made it just in time.

“What I’m so impressed with is that if given opportunities, Eric will just have an amazing future because he’s a hard worker, and he’s very committed, and he’s very driven,” McCullough says. “Eric is my superstar.”

Another Full-Time Job

Both Martinez and Sergio Contreras live in public housing in Lacoochee, and if there’s a problem, they know who to call. Along with his coop job, David Lambert chairs the Pasco County Housing Authority.

“At the beginning it was a fulltime job, I can tell you that,” says Lambert, who now has it down to 20 to 25 hours a week.

But how did a co-op employee wind up in that role? It traces back to April 2010, when Margaret Taffs, a 13-year Housing Authority employee, was fired. Ten months later, Taffs sued. She claimed whistle-blower status and leveled a slew of allegations against the authority, including claims that one employee took bribes and another was overpaid.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent in a team of auditors and later labeled the authority a “troubled agency.” Gov. Rick Scott ousted the authority’s board and picked new members— including Lambert, who got involved at the behest of the co-op’s general manager.

“The properties were dilapidated,” Lambert recalls. “They had no direction. There were millions of dollars in funding deficits.”

Today, Lambert shares the vision for replacing Lacoochee’s public housing stock with homes like the ones in a nearby community that he proudly shows visitors.

If that’s not enough, Lambert also chairs the Hernando chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. On weekends you might find him and his family picking up trash in Lacoochee or building a Habitat house. But he makes one thing clear: “I’m no different than any other person here.”

Ronnie Deese, Withlacoochee’s manager of finance and accounting, sits on the boards of the Boys and Girls Club of Pasco County and the Pasco County Fair, and he works with Sunrise of Pasco, a domestic violence organization. He helped save the PAL Football program when it was broke, disorganized, and fraught with rumors of mismanagement.

“There’s so much need that it’s difficult to turn away from,” Deese says. “The football program was collapsing. There was not going to be a football program in east Pasco, and so some of the more in-need citizens asked me to get involved. And I did. And I spent three or four years with it.”

And when Withlacoochee needs a hand from lawmakers, the staff is not shy about picking up the phone.

Friends In The Right Places

Getting things done for members means having cordial relations with lawmakers—from the counties the co-op serves, to the state capital in Tallahassee, to Washington, D.C.

“We’re very active in the political scene,” Brown says. Since it started helping Lacoochee, the co-op has found a good friend in U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

“Lacoochee is a great example of what people can accomplish when they come together to create real change,” Nelson says. “Thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many, Lacoochee is just starting to realize its true potential.”

There are many others Withlacoochee can count on. Deese recalls waiting his turn at the barbershop one Saturday when he read a newspaper editorial calling on the governor to veto a bill that would have helped fund the Lacoochee community center.

A man with an impressive Rolodex, Deese went outside and called then-Speaker of the Florida House Will Weatherford. Weatherford knew Gov. Scott was in Sarasota at the time, so he raced down there and was able to take Scott aside.

“Sure enough,” Deese says, “it got approved, we got our money, and we got our building.”

Visible Change

Lambert says there’s still a lot more work to be done in Lacoochee, but to the people who live and work there, the improvements are already highly noticeable.

“The whole area is getting nice,” says Lona Sapp, a Lacoochee resident since 1992. “Things have changed. They’re bringing in Habitat homes, and you notice the dirt roads being paved.”

Sapp likes the “country atmosphere” of Lacoochee. “People know each other,” she says, though she recalls a time when people were loathe to let their children play outside.

Cpl. Jessica Hammond of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office understands.

“I’ve been working for the agency for 15 years, and I have seen the transformation,” says Hammond, who is part of the “Officer Friendly Program,” which has a special focus on improving the quality of life for children in lower-income sections of the county. The program has an office in the community center.

Hammond was in Lacoochee the night in 2003 when her friend and mentor Lt. Charles “Bo” Harrison was shot dead there, barely two weeks before he was to retire.

“It has been a high-crime area, mainly because of the poverty level here. Outsiders have taken advantage of it and have used this as a stomping ground,” Hammond says. “So it’s great that we have the co-op here, the county, and all our resources together to uplift the community so they’re not preying on them anymore.”

Beyond Poles and Wires

Withlacoochee’s efforts in the communities it serves earned it the Cooperative Purpose Award, given in February at the 2016 NRECA Annual Meeting. In presenting the award, master of ceremonies Lou Green noted that Withlacoochee “sets a high standard for all co-ops in serving its members, way beyond the poles and wires.”

“It would take a while to list all of Withlacoochee’s achievements,” he added.

But what is it that drives the people of the co-op? For the man at the top, it comes down to one thing: “I guess my philosophy of what a coop should be, and that is service to your members in every way that you can,” says Brown, 82. He grew up in the community and has spent 59 years at Withlacoochee, 43 as general manager.

“I have some advantage, I guess, that other people might not have in that I have grown up with this co-op. I’ve learned the business; I’ve been in charge of most every department; I served as district manager in two different areas and, through all that, have gotten to know a lot of the people that we serve,” Brown says. “And when they need some help that the co-op can do and should do, they know that they can call on me.”

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