Keith Sievers’ official job title is facilities & materials supervisor, but his co-workers at Northeastern Rural Electric Membership Corporation (REMC) in Columbia City, Ind., usually just call him “the purchasing guy.”
“Yep,” he says. “That’s one of the jobs I do here. I purchase everything from toilet paper to utility poles and everything else in between. And any building maintenance that needs to be done, I’m the go-to guy on that as well.”
It’s a job that keeps him busy, but not one that ordinarily puts him in the limelight. That changed last fall, when the Whitko Pony League was looking for help fixing up its baseball field on the outskirts of tiny Larwill, Ind. League officials had heard that Northeastern REMC gives away used poles, and the Larwill field really needed some.
“The lights were old, and they didn’t even light the outfield,” says Jorell Tucker, who is president of the Whitko Pony League, an eight-year member of the Whitko School Board and one of the coaches for the teams of 12- to 15-year-olds who call the Larwill field home.
The league’s plea bounced around Northeastern’s offices for a bit before landing on Sievers’ desk. And that, it turns out, was no accident.
Northeastern REMC encourages all of its employees to participate in community projects, according to Michael DeFreeuw, the co-op’s marketing & communications director.
“With each new community project, we try to get more employees involved,” DeFreeuw says. “We try to get people from every department, not only in planning the project but with the hands-on kinds of things too, so everybody has a chance to give back a little bit. We’ve kind of mixed it up, and it works out real well.”
Sievers sank his teeth into this project. As a youth baseball team coach himself, he knows that “it does make a difference to have a nice place to play.”
And there was an obvious reason to get the purchasing guy on board.
“I guess I was put in charge because I was the one buying the poles,” Sievers says. That’s right: He was buying poles, seven brand-new 55-footers, not rounding up retired ones. That was just the beginning of the co-op’s generous response to the Whitko Pony League’s call for help.
“I took it to our management, and we came up with some other ideas on what we could do to help,” Sievers says. “Our Indiana statewide organization was having a Co-op Day, and we ended up making that day Northeastern REMC Day for that ballpark.”
On a sunny Friday last October, when electric co-ops from around the state participated in a day of community service, Northeastern’s team arrived at the Larwill field. Line crews came in bucket and digger trucks, inside workers grabbed paint and brushes, and they knuckled down on fixing up the ballpark. The co-op donated the materials, and the employees volunteering remained on the clock.
“There were 19 of us total. We went out and removed the poles they had there—which were rotten and just about falling over—and replaced them with new ones,” Sievers says. “We also fixed the outfield fence.”
He takes a breath and continues: “We repainted all the buildings and bathrooms they have out there. Repaired and replaced wood trim, basically just did a little remodeling work. We also surprised them by restoring the park’s teeter-totters. We bought them a tether ball to replace the one that had been missing for several years. None of these projects would have gotten done if it weren’t for a total team effort of Northeastern employees.”
The Larwill Lions Club built the field decades ago, Tucker says, but the little town got littler over the years, and the local Lions have been inactive for a long time. The field was showing its age until that fix-up squad from the co-op appeared.
“They were really surprised at how much work we were able to put in before lunchtime,” Sievers says.
But the co-op volunteers got a surprise of their own: “Northeastern REMC Field.”
“That was a great surprise for the co-op,” Sievers says. The Pony League officials “had a signboard made, and when we came back from lunch, they had taken that board and placed it on their building facing the main highway that runs through town. They had named the field after us.”
The honor brings a marketing payoff, DeFreeuw says. Grateful comments from players’ parents, Pony League fans, co-op members, and neighbors flooded the photo-filled post the co-op put on its Facebook page, and Northeastern REMC’s name assumed a high-traffic place of prominence.
“The park is used regionally for a lot of games, and it’s extremely visible from the main highway,” he says. “Not only is the sign visible, but so are the poles and the new lights. We’ve definitely got a presence there.”
Along with the co-op’s Operation Round Up contributions, Youth Tour program, help with community Christmas lights, and other local support, the improvements at the newly named baseball field led to the co-op being named the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce’s Large Business of the Year for 2016.
“A lot of things went into it, but that just sealed the deal,” DeFreeuw says.
For Sievers, the project was its own reward.
“Years ago, I used to work as a lineman,” he says. “It was nice to be able to get out and be a part of that work again. It’s always good to know you can help someone out, especially when it’s for the kids. We’re doing it all for them.”
Sievers and his co-op deserve to feel good about their work, Tucker says.
The spruced-up Northeastern REMC Field appears to be attracting more kids to the Whitko Pony League, which he predicted would grow from 22 players last year to as many as 33 this year. “We could be looking at three teams,” he says.
Contests among those teams pack the park’s new bleachers with the players’ proud parents, siblings, and fans, putting Larwill on the map for at least a few innings.
“On a good game or a good weekend, we can probably double the population,” Tucker says with a chuckle.
A lot of those spectators are Northeastern REMC members, he adds, a privilege he doesn’t share.
“I’m not a member, unfortunately,” Tucker says. “But the ball diamond is.”