Representing the state’s 17 electric cooperatives, 48 Youth Tour delegates gather in front of the Washington Monument.
Category: Cover Story

A Life-Changing Week on Youth Tour

Representing the state’s 17 electric cooperatives, 48 Youth Tour delegates gather in front of the Washington Monument. Photo by Shelley Tucker, South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative

Dubbed digital natives, members of Generation Z do not know life before the internet or mobile technology. They have spent their lives online — from schoolwork to socializing. But for 7 pivotal days, from June 16th to 22nd, they suspended their virtual reality for an immersive real-world experience. The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas Youth Tour brought 48 rising high school seniors to Washington, D.C., for a life-changing tour of our nation’s capital. “Youth Tour is a one-of-a-kind experience for delegates that helps to shape them into future leaders. The electric cooperatives have a proud history of investing in our youth through programs like this one,” says JD Lowery, Arkansas Youth Tour coordinator and director of community and economic development for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC). Who better to tell their stories than seven of the delegates who experienced it firsthand?

Day 1

By Rhealyn Schmidt
Walnut Ridge, Craighead Electric

Rhealyn Schmidt
Photo: Courtesy of Rhealyn Schmidt

The first day of the Youth Tour began as delegates traveled across Arkansas to convene at a Little Rock hotel. We received name tags, trading pins, and T-shirts for the week ahead. Before lunch, we took time to meet and learn more about one another. Everyone was nervous, considering that we did not know one another, and our parents were letting us go on a trip without their supervision.

After lunch, we went to the state Capitol, where we toured the House of Representatives, and the old state Supreme Court and held $500,000 in cash at the state Treasury. Adelene Westfall of Nashville (Southwest Arkansas Electric) said, “Seeing the Arkansas state Capitol gave me a newfound appreciation for our state government. I really enjoyed seeing the House of Representatives and hearing all about the process of the committee meetings for the General Assembly and the daily lives of our legislators.”

Brooklyn Mott (Ashley-Chicot Electric); Cameron Gordon (Southwest Arkansas Electric); Kayleigh Baker (First Electric); and Noah Young (Farmers Electric) at the Smithsonian Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
Photo by: Nancy Meador

Afterward, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and orientation. During dinner, we enjoyed Scott Davis’ magic show. Earlier in the day, those who applied to be our Arkansas Youth Leadership Council (YLC) delegate went through an interview process with a panel of judges. At dinner, the top four finalists gave presentations to their peers on why they should be the Arkansas YLC delegate, and we cast our votes.

After dinner, we continued learning about each other and creating new friendships. We headed to our rooms, preparing for the long day ahead and an exciting week of new adventures.

Day 2

By Breanne Currey
Arkadelphia, South Central Arkansas Electric

Breanne Currey
Photo by Nancy Meador

Wheels up on the runway! Our Saturday adventure started by arriving at the airport at 4:30 a.m. Most of our group had already experienced flying, however, there were a few of us (including myself) who flew for the first time.

After arriving safely in Washington, D.C., our first stop was the Smithsonian Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an Air and Space Museum Annex. Cameron Gordon of Texarkana (Southwest Arkansas Electric) said it was her favorite experience: “It’s just seeing how large the planes and space objects are, and putting all that into perspective can offer a fun way of teaching history as you browse the museum.” I couldn’t agree with her more!

Next on our adventure list was the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. This statue replicates one of the most iconic photos of World War II. Soon after, we headed our way to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It was beautiful to everyone who witnessed it, but especially to Ava Billingsley of Forrest City (Woodruff Electric). She said, “The symbolic significance of MLK’s memorial was very inspiring to me. The statue is unfinished because his dream is still evolving.” I absolutely enjoyed her perspective of the memorial and the day overall. Down the road (literally and figuratively), we saw the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, where our group was inspired by his quotes.

Hayden Stephens (Rich Mountain Electric) found his great-uncle’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Photo by Nancy Meador

It was approaching dark when we left for our hotel. It didn’t take any of us long to go to sleep after the beautiful, astonishing, and eventful day we all were blessed to experience. What better way to spend your first day in D.C. than with your friends — who were becoming more like family — while enjoying this great American experience?

Day 3

By Stella Garton
Fayetteville, Ozarks Electric

Stella Garton
Photo: Courtesy of Stella Garton

In true Arkansas style, we woke up early and threw on our camo! We headed to Mount Vernon, the beautiful estate of our first president, George Washington. We toured not only the mansion but also the grounds and museum, named after donor Donald W. Reynolds — the same man who donated to the University of Arkansas football stadium. It was fun to see a reminder of home all the way across the country!

From there, we went to Arlington National Cemetery; being Father’s Day, it was particularly special. Dozens of families were laying flowers on tombstones to honor their loved ones. The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was perfect, topped with a Tomb Guard from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment staying after the ceremony to talk with us. He explained their daily and weekly schedules along with how honoring it is. It was very eye-opening to see how much detail goes into everything to honor the Unknown Soldier. An example of this was why the guards walk in counts of 21 — to symbolize the highest military honor that can be bestowed.

Mason Harris (Ozarks Electric); Briley Hickman (North Arkansas Electric); Emma Berry (C & L Electric) and Shelby Rainbolt (C & L Electric) at the memorial of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who created the Rural Electrification Act that brought electricity to rural areas.
Photo by Nancy Meador

Next, we visited the Lincoln, Korean War Veterans, World War II, and Vietnam Veterans memorials. We took each of them in and reflected on their history. Another special moment was when Hayden Stephens of Dierks (Rich Mountain Electric) found his great-uncle’s name on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “It was amazing to see his name on the wall,” he said. “I didn’t know him, but I’m proud to be related to someone who died for our freedom.”

To end the night, we joined delegates from Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, and Oklahoma on a river cruise. We ate dinner and danced the night away while cruising down the Potomac River. Once it got dark, the skyline looked so dreamy. We all couldn’t help but go stand on the deck and watch. It was times like these when our friendships grew closer, and our trading pin collections grew larger.

Day 4

By Morgan Manning
Bryant, First Electric

Morgan Manning Photo: Courtesy of Morgan Manning

We started the day off early and headed straight for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We took group photos in front of the White House gate and even did the “Cupid Shuffle” dance out front.

The next stop was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We saw many artifacts and learned a lot about the horrific events of the Holocaust. While there, we met two Holocaust survivors. The ladies told us about their life and how they eventually escaped the brutality. Seeing this museum firsthand really opened our eyes and put everything into perspective of how appalling and inhumane the Holocaust was. “I enjoyed the visuals in the Holocaust Museum. In school, we’ve only ever heard about it, but in the museum, we got to see where the victims stayed and how they lived,” said Kayleigh Baker of Alexander (First Electric).

That afternoon, we visited the National Archives Museum, where we saw the original U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. It was so interesting to see the writings on the old, deteriorating papers, even though it was very difficult to read.

Representative Bruce Westerman details the architecture of the U.S. Capitol’s rotunda during a private evening tour.
Photo by Nancy Meador\

We wrapped up the day by attending a Washington Nationals baseball game. The Nationals played the St. Louis Cardinals, with most of us cheering for our neighboring state’s team. The Cardinals won! Before we left the baseball park, we proudly left our mark (and a loud shout) representing our state by standing and yelling, “Woo Pig Sooie!”

One last stop before heading to the hotel was to visit the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. It was moving to see how each bench represented one of the 184 victims, which were arranged by age from the youngest at 3 years old to the oldest at age 71.

Delegates pose somberly at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, where each bench represents one of the 184 victims.
Photo by Nancy Meador

Everything I have learned in a history or civics class instantly came alive and became real. What impacted me the most is that history does not sleep and isn’t necessarily in the past when you see it in person. I am so glad that I applied for the Youth Tour through my local co-op, First Electric. This trip was truly an experience of a lifetime, one that I will never forget, and I know the people I met on this journey will be my friends for life. Thank you to everyone who made this opportunity possible for every single student. See you again, D.C.!

Day 5

By Haley Carter
Dierks, Rich Mountain Electric

Haley Carter
Photo by Nancy Meador

The morning started off with a quick trip to the Supreme Court. I asked Charlotte Lammers of Blytheville (Mississippi County Electric) what she thought of it, and she said it had “beautiful architecture and was very unique.”

Many fell in love with our second stop, the Library of Congress. As we walked into this glorious building, our jaws dropped, and we were in awe of the columns within the building. It looked as if we stepped into a palace, except it was filled with art and books, including Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. As a person who does not like to read, I was amazed by the place. It was truly breathtaking. Kaylea Roberson of Bee Branch (Petit Jean Electric) said, “It was very beautiful, and I was amazed by everything. It is the most beautiful place in D.C.”

The Smithsonian Museums were our third stop for the day. We had our choices of which ones to visit. I went to the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of American History. Both did a fantastic job of showcasing history. I enjoyed American History because it had anything you could imagine — vehicles, pop culture, and the first American flag, just to name a few. Natural History had animals from land to sea. Audrey Jones of Cabot (First Electric) said, “We were excited to see Captain America’s shield. It was also cool to see a big shark, which was now extinct.”

After a quick lunch, we headed over to the Washington Monument, which I only knew of because of the movie “Forrest Gump.” It truly was amazing to see it in person. The huge obelisk is 555 feet tall!

Which brings me to the last event of the day. We met members of Arkansas’ Congressional delegation, Representative French Hill, Senator Tom Cotton, Representative Bruce Westerman, Representative Rick Crawford, and Representative Steve Womack, for photos and a Hog call on the steps of the Capitol. That evening, we got a private tour of the Capitol with Representative Westerman as our personal tour guide. He did an amazing job telling us stories and showing us many astonishing rooms in the Capitol. We even got to step outside onto the Speaker of the House’s balcony for a spectacular view of the National Mall.

Afterward, we went to the House Chamber, where we sat in the same seats our representatives sat in during the session and in the president’s State of the Union address. Representative Westerman was very gracious and answered our many questions. It was truly a pleasure and a life-changing experience.

Day 6

By Shawna Whitehurst
Jonesboro, Craighead Electric

Shawna Whitehurst
Photo Courtesy of Shawna Whitehurst

It was our final day of activities. A lot of us were exhausted and tired of walking, but we had a two-hour bus ride to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which allowed for some nap time. The weather was rainy and chilly, so we were all glad that the majority of the day was spent on the bus or inside the museum.

There was a lot to see in Gettysburg. In the museum, we watched a short movie that explained the battle in detail. Then there was a diorama light show with a giant painting of the battle. Back on our bus, a tour guide showed us around different parts of Gettysburg and the battlefields. The views were breathtaking.

Once we were back in D.C., the rest of our day was spent at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Youth Day event. Each state selected one delegate to be the Youth Leadership Council (YLC) representative at the 2024 NRECA PowerXchange conference.

This year, our representative is Kagan Word of Widener (Woodruff Electric). “I am shocked and honored at the same time to be selected by my peers. I hope to represent Arkansas well as the state’s YLC delegate,” Kagan said.

Arkansas’ 2023 Youth Leadership Council delegate Kagan Word visits with Rukaya Alrubaye, last year’s YLC delegate who is now NRECA’s national youth spokesperson.
Photo by Nancy Meador

Last year’s YLC Arkansas delegate, Rukaya Alrubaye of Fayetteville (Ozarks Electric), was chosen as NRECA’s national youth spokesperson and was a featured speaker at Youth Day.

We spent much of our time at Youth Day pin trading with delegates from other states. It was one of the best parts of the trip! The goal was to get as many states’ pins as you could. Rhealyn Schmidt of Walnut Ridge (Craighead Electric) said, “I loved having the ability to meet people from many different states and trade pins with each other.”

Since it was the last day in D.C., we convinced our chaperones to extend our curfew, so that we all could spend time together. Youth Tour really is a trip of a lifetime. Showing up and not knowing anyone can be scary, but we were all going home with many new friends and lots of wonderful memories!

Day 7

By Mason Harris
Fayetteville, Ozarks Electric

Mason Harris
Photo by Nancy Meador

The seventh and final day started bright and early. Alarm clocks were set to 5:30 a.m., and they went off! Upon waking up, many were exhausted, having stayed up all night; some of us felt fine! The first realization in the morning, however, was that this trip was coming to an end. Having bonded the entire week and having spent every second together, everyone on the trip grew somber that this would likely be the last time everyone would be together.

But the week was incredible, anybody would tell you that. From meeting new people to visiting new places to experiencing a new town for many this trip, and even some traveling by airplane for the first time — this week had it all. Songs were sung, memes were made, dances were performed, and friendships were formed. We would do anything to go back to these moments.

The last day wasn’t filled with all sadness, as numbers were exchanged, and social media handles given out. Joy came from the realization that we would all stay in touch. Even a week later, jokes continued through group chats, in an attempt to keep the D.C. flame going strong.

This was a life-changing week for everyone who went, and the worst part about the trip was leaving. I know I speak for everyone when I say that I would do this as many times as I could. Whatever it would take to be with these people again. A trip we won’t ever forget — Youth Tour 2023!

A photo in front of the White House makes a memorable moment for Youth Tour delegates.
Photo by Nancy Meador