David Callis, executive vice president and general manager

One early Friday morning this past June, four large tour buses pulled away from our office in Nashville. In a city filled with motor coaches, that’s not an unusual occurrence. However, instead of taking a band on a 20-city, multistate tour, these buses were filled with VIPs: high school seniors from across the state heading to our nation’s capital on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, each student a standout from his or her local high school.

This wasn’t the first time this scene played out, and it certainly won’t be the last. For the past 50 years, the electric cooperatives of Tennessee have been sending the youth from their communities on this weeklong trip that’s educational and, of course, a lot of fun. The Washington Youth Tour is a joint effort of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and your local electric cooperative.

Past alumni include military and civic leaders, legislators and the occasional business leader. In fact, none other than Apple CEO Tim Cook took his first trip to Washington, D.C., compliments of his local electric cooperative.

In talking about his first visit to the center of our democracy, Cook said, “In the summer of 1977, I was 16 years old. At the end of my junior year of high school, I won an essay contest sponsored by the National Rural Electric Association. I remember very clearly writing it by hand, draft after draft after draft.” He mentions that his family was too poor to afford a typewriter.

Cook was one of two students from Baldwin County, Alabama, chosen to go to Washington along with hundreds of other kids from across the country (this year’s tour brought 1,700 students to D.C., Tennessee alone accounting for 10 percent of that number).

That same year, 1977, jazz guitarist George Benson recorded the song “The Greatest Love of All,” which begins with these lyrics:

“I believe the children are our future,
“Teach them well and let them lead the way.
“Show them all the beauty they possess inside.
“Give them a sense of pride to make it easier …”

Those words sum up how we view the Youth Tour. You might not think a one-week trip could make a difference in someone’s life, but you’d be wrong. A phrase that is often repeated from participants past and present is that this is “the trip of a lifetime.”

That’s the goal toward which we are aiming. Students learn about their government, our nation’s history and electric cooperatives (we are sponsoring the trip!), and they discover how to make a difference in their communities.

We invest millions of dollars each year in building and improving the electric infrastructure in our communities. We take investing in the future of our youth just as seriously. Wires and poles, hearts and minds — all are critical for our communities to thrive.

Who could have predicted that a poor high school kid from Alabama would someday be CEO of the world’s largest company? We don’t know what leaders may come out of this year’s class, but it’s an investment we’ve been making for the past half-century and one we’ll continue to make.

You never know just how great a return you’ll receive.

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