Operation Razorback participants display the U.S., Guatemala and Arkansas flags as a sign of unity. Photo by James Pratt.
Category: Cover Story

Operation Razorback brightens homes, hearts in Guatemala

Guatemalan villagers join Operation Razorback lineworkers in a celebratory Hog call. Photo by James Pratt.

When asked if the December Operation Razorback endeavor — a 12-day trip to electrify rural parts of Guatemala — was his first mission, lineworker Dylan Rupe chuckles.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, adding, “This is the first time I’ve ever been on an airplane.”

A Guatemalan girl lends a hand to Dylan Rupe of C & L Electric Cooperative. Photo by James Pratt.

Rupe, an 11-year employee of C & L Electric Cooperative of Star City, says he never felt inclined to fly, after all, he jokes, “The good Lord didn’t put feathers on me.” But that changed years ago when he first heard about Operation Razorback, an initiative of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas to improve lives of impoverished people in other parts of the world.

Rupe says, “I told myself that whenever I made journeyman and got where I could go, I was going to do everything I could to make that trip, because if you’ve got the ability and the knowledge to help somebody in the world, why not go help?”

Rupe kept that promise to himself, jumping in when another lineworker had to drop out of this mission last-minute. And he is overjoyed that he did.

“It was way out of my comfort zone from the word go. It was the first of a lot of things for me, but it was well worth it,” he says. “Besides marrying my wife and having my child — and we have another child that will be here in February — it’s the best, best thing I believe I’ve ever done in my life. It was an awesome experience.”

Guiding lights

Together with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association International, the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas have participated in Operation Razorback since 2013, electrifying villages in Guatemala and Bolivia. This latest mission, coordinated in partnership with Little Rock-based Heifer International, also included lineworkers from Colorado and Oklahoma.

Villagers observe as Operation Razorback lineworkers electrify parts of Guatemala. Photo by James Pratt.

After this project, which took place from Dec. 3 to 15, CEO Vernon “Buddy” Hasten says, “Arkansas electric lineworkers will have assisted more than 2,500 rural Bolivians and Guatemalans to receive electrical service.”

It’s an incredible number, especially because missions don’t always happen as scheduled. Trips were suspended entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic. An October 2022 mission to Guatemala was cut short due to extreme flooding. And this 2023 trip, initially scheduled for August, was postponed due to potential civil unrest.

Ultimately, the December timing of the trip proved rather meaningful.

“To go over there and give them lights right around Christmas kind of made it extra special,” says Todd Spakes, a lineworker at Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative of Texarkana.

William Thompson, senior safety specialist for AECC, works on wiring. Each home receives two power outlets, four lights and two light switches. Photo by James Pratt.

Whereas this was the first mission for Rupe, this was the third time Spakes, a 28-year employee, has participated in an Operation Razorback mission.

“It’s hard to believe there are people who still don’t have electricity in this world,” Spakes says. “My first trip, there was a woman who was 92 years old; she had never seen a light bulb come on. And that’s pretty amazing to give somebody electricity who has never seen it in 92 years. It’s just a wonderful feeling to help people like that and make their lives easier.”

For this particular mission, lineworkers provided service drops to residents in about three dozen villages and completed internal wiring of homes. Each home received two power outlets, four lights and two light switches. Over the years, missions have varied from constructing transmission lines to running service lines to service drops and internal wiring.

Villagers cut open coconuts so lineworkers like Chase Hathorn of Ozarks Electric Cooperative can drink from them. Photos by James Pratt.

Lineworker Chase Hathorn, a seven-year employee at Ozarks Electric Cooperative of Fayetteville, says, “What we were doing this time was wiring up the homes. So, we were putting light bulbs, switches and outlets inside the house. … We placed them throughout their homes, wherever they wanted — that way it would be most convenient to them.”

Working inside peoples’ homes gave the lineworkers personal interaction with villagers as well as perspective.

Rupe says, “Some have dirt floors … and they may have palm tree leaves as roofs. If they have a bed, there’s a good chance that they don’t have a mattress on it. They’re walking everywhere; a lot of them don’t have vehicles.”

Hathorn says, “You see their day-to-day lives, how they prepare their food, how they live and the things that they have to overcome — things we take for granted here at home, stuff that we don’t even think about. … They have to carry water; they don’t have running water out in those rural areas.”

Miles and smiles

What the villagers do have, however, are gracious attitudes.

“They’re just the happiest people you have ever met in your life,” Rupe says.

Hathorn agrees, saying, “They’re very happy people and thankful people. They know why we’re there, and so they’re very helpful. When you pull up, they want to carry stuff; they’re very eager to help you in that process.”

That willingness was greatly appreciated by the lineworkers, who all concur that the area’s mountainous topography posed the toughest challenge, especially when lugging heavy equipment up steep formations at high elevations.

“Even when we were going downhill, we were still going uphill,” says William Thompson, senior safety specialist for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC) about the terrain. Photo by James Pratt.

Supervising this trip, his second mission, was William Thompson, senior safety specialist for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC). Thompson, an AECC employee of five years who previously worked as a North Arkansas Electric Cooperative lineworker for seven years, says, “I know I worked harder on this trip wiring houses than I did building power lines in Bolivia. I think a lot of that had to do with the terrain; it was pretty unforgiving. It seemed like we were going uphill everywhere we were going.

“Even when we were going downhill, we were still going uphill.”

Not only was the terrain demanding, travel was too. After flying to Guatemala, a lot of driving on curvy roads to remote areas was required. Thompson says, “We’d have to drive two or three hours just to get to a village to wire up a handful of houses.”

But the villagers’ gratitude made the effort well worth it.

The work of Operation Razorback — and their lollipops — produce smiles. Photo by James Pratt.

“They were just as happy as they can be,” Thompson says. “They would help us. Once they figured out what we were doing as far as our routine, we’d finish up with one, and the guys, the kids, the women sometimes would grab our gear and move on to the next one. And they’d be way out ahead of us, taking all our stuff and getting it ready for us. I didn’t see anybody not smiling.”

He adds with a laugh, “That could have been because we handed out a lot of candy to those kids while we were down there.”

Giving and receiving

Not only did lineworkers pass out plenty of candy, they fittingly gave away thousands of toothbrushes, donated by Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas employees.

The giving didn’t end there.

Spakes says, “We gave our lunch away to the villagers every day. We would wait and eat when we got back home, and they were very appreciative of us giving them our meals.”

While they gave their time, effort and food, all Operation Razorback participants say they received a lot in return, including a feeling of accomplishment, insight and friendship.

“Everybody who wants to go steps up, everybody has good hearts, and everybody gets along,” Spakes says. “It’s good fellowship, too. Everything went smooth, and we all got the job done.”

According to Rob Roedel, senior director of corporate communications for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, the Operation Razorback missions change the lives of not only the villagers, but also the lives of the lineworkers who serve.

It’s another uphill climb for Jamie Reeves of Petit Jean Electric Cooperative (center) and Dylan Rupe of C & L Electric Cooperative (right). Photo by James Pratt.

“I have been involved with each Operation Razorback mission, and I have observed that our men gain a perspective of remembering why they love what they do,” he says. “In the United States, we are accustomed to a level of prosperity that other parts of the world only dream of achieving. The rural villagers only want a better life for their children, just like grandparents or great-grandparents wanted for the current generation of rural Americans. We are honored to be able to assist others to achieve their dreams.”

Other Arkansas lineworkers who participated in this Operation Razorback trip were: Jay Jones with North Arkansas Electric Cooperative of Salem; Bryar Burks with Ozarks Electric Cooperative; Steve Howard and Jamie Reeves with Petit Jean Electric Cooperative of Clinton; and Alex Wright with Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative.

Operation Razorback lineworkers endure long stretches of travel — on foot, as well as by car and by plane — to reach work sites in rural Guatemala. Photo by James Pratt.

Rupe, whose first flight was this mission, says he’s ready to pack his bags for the next.

“I hope I’m on the plane the next time it leaves to head to Guatemala or whatever part of the world we go to work,” he says. “I hope I’m blessed with the opportunity to be able to go again.”

A future lineworker in the making. Photo by James Pratt.