Case Study: Youth Director Programs

Carroll White REMC and Fulton County REMC

For the Good of the Order

Electric cooperatives have a long history of developing the “next generation” of consumers and educating them about electric cooperatives, the cooperative business model, and community service.

Indiana’s electric cooperatives have offered the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour and Touchstone Energy Camp for almost 60 years and 17 years, respectively. There have also been other student-focused programs in which cooperatives rightly take pride: power line safety demonstrations and lessons, tree-planting safety programs, student art calendar contest, Junior Achievement, 4-H Electric, FFA, and office internships.

But in the past several decades, economic and cultural issues have conspired to negatively impact cooperative communities: lack of infrastructure, lost jobs, lost opportunities, and lost population. And, most heart-wrenching of all, perhaps, has been the flight of rural Indiana’s younger demographic who move away in search of more or better opportunities to live their lives and raise their families. This pattern of loss creates an economic downturn that stunts even once-prosperous small communities. How can cooperatives be more effective in helping stop or reverse the pattern?

Two Indiana cooperatives, Fulton County REMC and Carroll White REMC, have instituted bold and innovative programs in recent years to better engage youth. Expanding on the longstanding cooperative programs, they have taken groups of students into the heart of their cooperative culture and made them cohesive ongoing team members. Though different in their approach, both programs are engaging youth like never before.

Challenge

  • Learn more about the younger generation of consumers.
  • Better educate the younger generation about a cooperative and how it’s fundamentally different.
  • Help stop the loss of young educated people from rural communities by engaging them.

Solution

Fulton County REMC Student Director Program

  • Three or four student director positions are non-voting, but students are otherwise considered full participants in the regular monthly board meetings. Student directors also participate in other cooperative events and functions.

Carroll White REMC Junior Board of Directors Program

  • Up to 16 students compose a junior board with its own monthly meetings, officers and bylaws. Meetings consist of parliamentary procedures and discussions, a guest speaker from the community and exercises in team-building or developing leadership skills. Junior board members also participate in other cooperative events and functions.

Results

  • Students gain real-world experience of how boards and parliamentary procedures work beyond the textbook; learn public speaking, leadership skills and other soft skills in working with others that businesses crave; have become more motivated to serve in other ways.
  • Students have become more engaged in their local community.
  • Students have become ambassadors for the cooperative, sharing experiences and talking about the other youth-engagement programs their cooperative offers.
  • REMCs have a source of fresh ideas from young voices about better ways to engage younger consumers.
  • REMCs report they have drawn younger consumers to their annual meetings.
  • REMCs have developed students who want to return to the community to be future leaders and even serve on the REMC board.

A Call to Order

Junior boards or youth representatives to boards are not new. Joe Koch, CEO at Fulton County REMC, noted when he served on local Habitat for Humanity board back in the 1990s it had a youth board to help get youth involved in the non-profit home-building program. And both Koch and Randy Price, CEO of Carroll White REMC, noted inspiration for their own programs also came from a local bank with a youth board.

In addition, RushShelby Energy initiated a “junior director” program in 2012-13. Its one participant was 2012 Youth Tour participant Alesha Smith. She attended board meetings and other cooperative activities. While RushShelby CEO Terry Jobe said the board was very receptive to the program, the program never found its footing and, with the departure of an employee who helped initiate it, it was discontinued after just one year.

At Fulton and Carroll White, the student boards take center stage at each respective cooperative’s annual meeting and help recruit classmates and younger students for their cooperative’s other youth programs. While the same devotions to youth may have inspired their programs and both cooperatives have the same ultimate goal to improve connections and engagement with the youth in their communities, both cooperatives developed slightly different programs.

Fulton County REMC Student Directors

Fulton County REMC’s program seats its three or four student directors directly in the boardroom with its directors during the regular monthly board meetings. The students don’t get to vote, but they are encouraged to offer input, ask questions and join the discussions as if they were regular board members. Koch said the adult board holds nothing back from the students, but will go into executive session without the students present.

“We’re very transparent with them. They see the financials. They see what we’re talking about in discussions.

Joe Koch, Fulton County REMC

“We are very transparent with them. They see the financials. They see what we’re talking about in discussions,” said Koch. “Doing it the way we’re doing it, the board has to be pretty open to having people in its boardroom. Everybody has to be on board.”

The students see firsthand how a cooperative board works. “They are more than welcome to make comments. And sometimes we ask them for their comments,” Koch added. “Our board is very open-minded and respectful of who they are. They just become part of the board family and the REMC family.”

Students are selected through an application process at their schools. Each student on the board must be a junior or senior and must live on Fulton County REMC lines. The program began in 2016. This year’s group of three makes for 10 students total who have passed through the program.

Angie Miller is curriculum coordinator at Caston High School, one of the schools that participates in the program, and also a nine-year board member at Fulton County REMC. When she attends national cooperative meetings and talks about the program, she has people tell her, “I can’t believe you have them in there for your discussions.” Then, when she hears how directors on some boards treat each other, she thinks, “I wouldn’t want to act that way in front of children either.

“For any board,” she said, “if we can’t operate in a manner that these kids can’t sit with us, then it probably shouldn’t be operating that way. If there is a concern for having them in there, then the other concern should be how we are acting as adults. We are blessed to have a board that’s very respectful of one another.”

“We know we’re there for the members,” noted Koch. “That’s an important point for the students to see. We can have a very good discussion; they’re all professional, not heated.”

Aubrey Dague, a senior at Caston High School, is closing out her second year on the student board. Her older sister Adrianna, entering her fourth year at Purdue University, was in the first class of student directors. Aubrey said she’s learned a lot in her stint, and not just about electricity or cooperatives in general. In school she said she learned textbook examples of how parliamentary procedures and how meetings are supposed to go. “It was really cool to sit in on their meetings and see how it might actually play out in real situations with real discussions that are going to make an impact on people outside of the meeting,” she said.

Aubrey said serving on the board has been special and motivating. “It’s a great opportunity to represent something bigger than yourself, to help more people than just your own interests. What I look for is what other people’s opinions are, try to get a group consensus and make the best decision on what is going to make the greatest impact on a larger group of people.”

“It’s a great opportunity to represent something bigger than yourself, to help more people than just your own interests.”

Aubrey Dague, Fulton County REMC Student Director

As an educator, Miller noted how important these connections to young people are for the cooperative and future of the community. “One of the key things you can do is get students involved with community activities when they are still in high school. Once they’ve made that connection, their chance of coming back to their community is greater.”

In addition to gaining experiences, the service on the student board is not without benefits. If student board members attend at least five board meetings during the year and assist at three other cooperative events, like the fair booth, annual meeting or the staff Easter egg hunt, that student director will receive a $1,500 scholarship to be used toward college or trade school courses. Students are able to earn up to $3,000 total for the two years of service.

The cooperative receives in return from the student board insight into what the younger generation is thinking — and, it’s hoped, their commitment to the community. Koch noted when Aubrey’s sister, Adrianna, attended a cooperative function while home from school, one of the REMC directors approached and asked what she was doing after college. Her response, with a wink: “I’m coming back to take your job.”

But that’s a good thing, noted Miller, for them to be instilled with that desire.

Benefits to the cooperative go beyond having a younger set of eyes and ideas interacting with the board. Students were asked to carry out research projects on issues the board was discussing related to the future of energy and report back to the board. They offered a number of ideas when the board was looking for ways to make the annual meeting more family-friendly. When both schools where the REMC alternates its annual meeting were having their cafeterias remodeled at the same time, the traditional meal the REMC served was ruled out. “One of the student directors said, ‘How about serving just a dessert?’” said Koch. “We said, ‘That’s a great idea!’ You could tell she felt like she was part of that board. That’s what you want to see. When they develop and become comfortable, that’s when more ideas flow out. It takes time, even for new directors.”

Koch said the program has helped the cooperative make that connection with youth. “It’s helped us draw some younger members to our annual meeting.” He said one student even offered a suggestion during a strategic planning session that became Fulton’s new tagline: “Building a better tomorrow since 1936.”

IN DETAIL: Fulton County REMC Student Director Program

  • Began in 2016.
  • Three or four student directors each year (10 students have participated since its beginning).
  • Students must be juniors or seniors in high school and may serve two years.
  • Must live on Fulton County REMC lines.
  • Must submit an application through their school and be selected.
  • Students sit in on regular monthly meetings of the REMC.
  • Board positions are non-voting, but students are otherwise full participants in the meeting; encouraged to ask questions, share ideas, and engage in discussions with regular directors. (They are excluded from executive sessions, which are rare.)
  • Required to attend at least five board meetings and participate in three outside REMC events (Easter egg hunt, annual meeting, etc.) annually to receive $1,500 annual scholarship that can be used for college or trade school ($3,000 potential).

Carroll White REMC Junior Board of Directors

Carroll White REMC developed the idea for a junior board of directors about the same time Fulton County REMC did, said Casey Crabb, communications and public relations manager. But it took a new director of human resources, Alicia Hanawalt, to take the idea from the drawing board to becoming a real board.

At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, Carroll White installed its first junior board of directors.

Unlike Fulton, Carroll White’s junior board is a separate entity from the cooperative’s consumer-elected board. That first year, the board had eight members from just two school systems. During the 2019-20 school year, two additional school systems were added and the board was expanded to 16 (though currently only 12 students actually sit on the board). In the next year, plans are for it to expand again to allow any student from 10 school systems and home-educated students in Carroll White’s service area to apply.

While its fundamental structure is different than Fulton’s, many of the lessons are the same.

During its monthly meeting, student leaders, elected among the seniors on the board, conduct the meeting under Robert’s Rules of Order. Crabb and Hanawalt oversee and guide the meetings held once a month on a Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

After the half-hour business session, a guest speaker from the business community — who is usually hosting the meeting at his or her facility — talks about the business and its role in the community. Other times, the meetings move between the cooperative’s two offices and the hour-long portion of the meeting focuses on developing leadership skills. Crabb noted this last year, especially, the students have focused on many of the same tools Indiana Electric Cooperatives provides for members of its RELITE program — Predictive Index and other self-awareness tools — so students can see how people with different personalities and learning styles tick.
“The junior board gave us an avenue to not only engage with the youth but also to help develop their leadership and community stewardship skills,” Hanawalt said. “We help provide them with that long-term experience so someday they’ll become members of our system’s Operation Round Up directors and more aware of who we are and what our story is, and, bring them back home.”

“The junior board gave us an avenue to not only engage with the youth but also to help develop their leadership and community stewardship skills.”

Alicia Hanawalt, Carroll White REMC

Crabb noted students want to be involved, and they share the cooperative’s story with fellow students, which generates interest in the junior board and the cooperative’s other youth programs. He said kids are hungry for experiences, and, he noted, students are looking for those things to participate in they can add to applications for jobs and college. He said the junior board does that. “They can learn and grow individually, and it gives them something to springboard themselves into the future.”

Price noted the program does take a commitment of the cooperative’s leadership team. “We spent a few years to prepare and to allocate the right amount of time and talent to make it meaningful to the students and the cooperative.” Crabb and Hanawalt give up part of their Sundays once a month for the meeting.

Like Fulton, there is also a monetary element to the program. The junior board selects two community projects a year in which to participate. For every hour of work each individual board member contributes to a project, Carroll White puts $15 into the board’s treasury, up to $1,000 per year total. At the end of the year, the junior board takes the amount in its treasury and awards it to one or more community non-profit organizations. In 2019, the junior board awarded money to the Wabash-Erie Canal Center in Delphi and Happy Tails, a local animal shelter.

“Some of our newest employees are just a few years older than the students participating in the junior board. The experience of working with the young people has also helped us to better understand the next generation that will be entering the workforce.

Randy Price, Carroll White REMC

Like Koch, Price endorses the program for other cooperatives looking to take its engagement with young people to a new level. “It’s consistent to our values we live by — such as when we send students to Touchstone Energy Camp and Youth Tour, award scholarships and give internship opportunities. Some of our newest employees are just a few years older than the students participating in the junior board. The experience of working with the young people has also helped us to better understand the next generation that will be entering the workforce. They’ve had different experiences growing up and have ideas that will determine the directions we may end up going in society and our industry.”

IN DETAIL: Carroll White REMC Junior Board of Directors Program

Three year phase-in:

  • 2018-19: Open to eight students (two juniors and two seniors) from Twin Lakes and Delphi high schools
  • 2019-20: Open to 16 students (12 actually on the board) from four schools, adding Tri-County and Carroll Consolidated
  • 2020-21: Plans to open the board to 16 students from 10 school systems in the service area and including home-educated students

Students must be juniors or seniors in high school.

Students do not need to live on Carroll White REMC lines.

Must submit an application including:

  • Their interest in a career applicable to a cooperative
  • Passion for the community
  • Career goals
  • Extracurricular activities
  • An essay about why they are interested in the board
  • Two reference letters, not from a relative, attesting to the applicant’s character

The junior board:

  • Is comprised of 16 students
  • Meets monthly on its own (overseen by Carroll White REMC staff)
  • Elects its own officers (seniors)
  • Adheres to its own bylaws

Meetings last about 90 minutes, with the first half hour being a meeting following Roberts’ Rules of Order and general discussions; last hour is usually a guest speaker from the community or exercises in team building or developing leadership skills.

Junior board members select two community service projects each year during which they can earn from Carroll White REMC $15 for every hour each member works up to $1,000. The amount earned is distributed at the end of the year to one or more non-profit organizations.

The junior board members also participate in other cooperative events and functions.

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