Chief Mechanic Randy Erickson was working on a wind turbine at Alaska’s Kodiak Electric Association seven years ago when his boss suddenly appeared and asked him if he had a passport.

The unexpected question brought a flood of enticing images to Erickson’s mind—a grand European capital or some other exciting tourist destination. Instead, his boss asked if he wanted to go to a country on no one’s bucket list: South Sudan.

“I’d seen the news about all the fighting and violence there, and I thought, ‘That’s where I’m going? You’ve got to be kidding me,’” he recalls. “But it turned out that some utilities were having trouble with their generators, and NRECA International was asking for our help. There was a need, so I went.”

Erickson says it turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life and one that has turned him into a passionate advocate for co-op employees to volunteer for NRECA International projects around the globe. Although the South Sudan program has ended because of continuing civil unrest and armed conflict, projects are ongoing throughout other parts of Africa, as well as in Latin America and Asia.

“My advice to anyone who is thinking about volunteering is simple: Do it,” he says. “Take a chance. It changes you for the better.”

‘I’m not in Alaska anymore’

NRECA International reached out to Kodiak Electric CEO Darron Scott with its request because he’d done earlier work with the program in Haiti and because his co-op has a fleet of diesel generators.

“They hoped we had someone with diesel engine experience who would be interested in helping out,” he says. “Randy jumped in.”

Erickson, who’d never volunteered for an NRECA International trip before South Sudan, says he felt like he was flying into the middle of a news video as his plane landed on a red clay runway in Uganda, near the Sudanese border, in the spring of 2014. At the time, a cease-fire had temporarily halted fighting between rebels and government forces in South Sudan.

“All that stuff you saw on TV is now right in front of your eyes,” he says. “On the drive into the village of Yei, there’s a tank that’s been blown up and is sitting on the side of the road. That makes it real. You think, ‘Oh man, I’m not in Alaska anymore.’”

Erickson’s two-week assignment was to help NRECA International assess the causes of malfunctioning generators at an electric cooperative in Yei, which served about 1,300 consumer-members, and at a utility in Maridi, with about 550. Before he left Alaska, a local hardware store gave him a set of tools to make repairs and then donate to the utility workers in South Sudan.

“The utilities were fighting to keep the power on because of the problems they were having with the generators,” he says. “One of them was being flooded internally with cooling water. They all needed to be overhauled; they were getting worn out from constant use and from not being maintained properly. We had to use a power-washer to clean out red clay that was clogging some of them. I tried to give the local utility workers hands-on instruction about how to take care of the equipment.”

The success of Erickson’s trip had implications beyond restoring reliable power.

“Randy’s trip came soon after the cease-fire in the region started,” says Dan Waddle, NRECA senior vice president for International. “It was a critical time for South Sudan as a new country, and keeping power flowing in those two villages was important for maintaining progress. It’s hard to overstate how essential it is to the success of NRECA International that there are volunteers like Randy, who are willing to leave their homes and lend their expertise to help people in need.”

Erickson says he was struck by how people in the villages got up and went to work every day and did their best to maintain some semblance of normalcy despite the civil war and ethnic violence. Most people in the region lived in mud huts and had a single light in their homes, he says.

“We’d drive to the utility every morning, and you’d see people outside their huts brushing their teeth, cooking on a fire, getting their clothes on, and getting ready to farm or go to jobs in the community,” he says. “There wasn’t anybody who wasn’t doing something.”

Just outside the fenced co-op area in Yei, Erickson said he saw an older man walk into the jungle every morning and return every afternoon with something wrapped in leaves or stuffed inside a sack. The man was hunting for whatever food he could kill with a homemade bow and arrow.

“One day, I asked him what he was hunting for, and it was bush rat,” Erickson says. “And I had some bush rat soup. I was raised that you finish everything that you’re given to eat, but I couldn’t finish that. I just couldn’t do it. But that’s how this guy was surviving.”

Some of the local residents found Erickson equally exotic when he showed them cellphone photos of the Kodiak bears that wander through his neighborhood in Alaska.

“We didn’t even have a Halloween this past year because we didn’t want the kids running around with the bears,” he says. “One of them looked to be about 1,200 pounds, and he’s walking the streets.”

The church service

But he says those wild Alaskan dangers don’t compare with what people face in South Sudan, where generations of parents have been wiped out by wars, leaving behind an untold number of orphaned children. The memory of one of them made a lasting impression on Erickson, who went to a Catholic church in Yei and was joined by a disabled boy who sat beside him on the ground and clung to him throughout the service. He said the experience “forever softened the heart of a not-so-tough guy from Alaska.”

“I walked out toward the overflow seating when by surprise my right hand was quickly filled and gripped tightly by a young boy’s hand,” Erickson wrote in a letter to NRECA International during his trip. “He was filthy, smelly, and his body was twisted. Crooked legs, no shoes, and torn trousers. He was wearing his crucifix, and I think that was the cleanest thing on him.

“He couldn’t speak, but he was gripping my hand, shaking it and wouldn’t let go. He sat right down in the middle of the parking lot, pulling me down with him. So that’s where we had church service. Two hours sitting in the middle of the parking lot in the hot sun, humming hymns because I didn’t know them, and he couldn’t sing them.”

‘Looking for comfort’

After the church service, Erickson and Bob Ellinger, a now-retired NRECA International employee who led the South Sudan project, rode about 120 miles on rough roads for eight hours to Maridi to evaluate the generators at the utility there.

The utility had to have diesel fuel trucked in from Uganda for $5 to $6 a gallon, Erickson says.

“The roads they take to get there would blow your mind,” he says. “We saw a truck tipped over and abandoned on the side of the road because they couldn’t make it through the mud holes. It was crazy.”

To save on fuel, the utilities turned the power off at night.

“Our lights would go out about 10 or 11 p.m., and then they’d fire it back up in the mornings,” he recalls.

When Erickson’s two-week assignment was over and the generators were back up and running, he donated his tools to the local co-op and flew from a tiny airstrip in Maridi to Uganda in a small plane flown by a Christian missionary.

“I remember before he took off, everybody said a prayer, which felt like a good idea,” he says.

After landing back in Uganda, Erickson got on a plane to Amsterdam—his one brief glimpse of Europe—and then on to the United States.

“Randy really exemplified why it’s great to work with a cooperative,” says Scott, the Kodiak CEO. “His actions were a model for us of how we can serve our community and others.”

Once he was back in his home state, Erickson was honored on the floor of the U.S. House by longtime Alaska Rep. Don Young, who praised him for his courage and good work.

“All the way from Kodiak to South Sudan,” Young marveled.

Erickson says that no longer feels as far away as it once did.

For one thing, his home now displays a homemade bow and arrows he bought from a man in South Sudan who no longer hunts.

“It’s not like South Sudan is a tourist country where you can buy trinkets,” he says. “There are no postcards. This is my souvenir. It brings back memories, just looking at it.”

It reminds him of the resiliency of the people and all they’ve had to endure.

“I think about it a lot, and I get angry sometimes,” Erickson says. “The people just want to live, and it’s so difficult with all the fighting. My trip made me more aware of what’s going on in the world and what people have to live through to survive.”

Erickson says there were discussions of him returning to the region before the NRECA International operation in South Sudan was shut down, but the situation was too volatile.

“It was falling apart over there.”

He does think about how the people he met are doing and whether they still have electricity.

“I still wonder about the kid—how he’s doing and if anyone is taking care of him,” he says. “It was just that brief moment in time that we spent together, when he approached me looking for comfort. I hope he’s found some.”

NRECA International is a separate legal entity from NRECA.