Missouri’s cooperatives have a long history of sending students on the trip of a lifetime
For some, it’s their first trip out of the Show-Me State. For more, it’s their first flight on an airplane. For most, it’s their first trip to their nation’s capital city. However, for all of them, there is no doubt that it’s the trip of a lifetime.
For more than 50 years, Missouri’s electric cooperatives have selected their area’s best and brightest soon-to-be high school seniors and sent them to Washington, D.C., for a week of monuments, museums, meetings and memories.
“The students that are selected for Youth Tour are the cream of the crop. They’re already leaders in their schools and communities. They aren’t just given the trip, they earn it through writing essays and giving speeches,” says Chris Massman, vice president of member services for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. “Youth Tour gives them a chance to expand their horizons and visit a part of our country that is rich with culture and history. They bring those experiences back with them to enhance their local communities.”
The history of Youth Tour dates back to 1957 when then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson spoke at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Annual Meeting. He pressed the electric cooperative leaders from across the country to invest in the nation’s youth. “If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents.”
The following year, groups from both Iowa and Illinois took on the senator’s challenge and sent students to D.C. In 1959, it grew to 130 students. Missouri joined in 1964 with 22 Show-Me State electric cooperatives sending 58 students. That was the first year NRECA began to coordinate the annual event bringing students from across the country to Washington at the same time.
Before COVID-19 paused the traditional Youth Tour in 2020 and 2021, more than 1,750 students and chaperones made the annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital every June. Missouri’s delegation has grown to more than 100. The trip offers students not only the chance to take in the memorable and historic sites of D.C., but also allows them to step out of their comfort zone and make new friends.
“It’s this electric combination of having so many young leaders, the excitement of being far from home — a first big trip for many — and recognizing they have the opportunity to spend just about a week being whoever they want to be,” says NRECA Youth Programs and Training Manager Beth Knudson. “That allows genuineness to shine through in our delegates.”
While in Washington, the delegates’ schedule is full from morning to night. Activities might include exploring the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, watching the Presidents Race at a Washington Nationals game, visiting the many monuments of the area or relaxing on a sunset cruise on the Potomac River. One thing all delegates do is visit Capitol Hill and meet with their member of the House of Representatives.
Lexi Jackson visited D.C. for the first time when she was sponsored by Branson-based White River Valley Electric Cooperative in 2015. “I saw government come to life on the trip,” the Washington University in St. Louis graduate says. “I felt like I was more a part of the process and could see my future as an active citizen and working in public policy and governance. If anything, it was a catalyst for us to become future leaders at a critical time in our lives.”
Every cooperative that participates in Youth Tour seeks out local students to enter their contest. The contest varies by co-op but most require an essay or speech on a cooperative or community issue or both. A group of outside judges is brought in and the winners are selected. The co-op then fully funds the once-in-a-lifetime trip to D.C.
“Youth Tour is a great way to give high school students the opportunity to learn more about our co-op as well as see firsthand how government works,” says Tim Schmidt, youth tour coordinator for Troy-based Cuivre River Electric Cooperative. “These students are leaders in their schools and communities and we’re committed to giving them opportunities to continue their growth.”
Each year, one delegate from each state is selected while on the trip as the representative for the national Youth Leadership Council. That delegate’s Youth Tour experience continues on after the trip is over. They return to D.C. later in the summer for more leadership training, travel to the NRECA Annual Meeting in the winter and have the opportunity to address the Missouri Youth Tour delegates the following year.
Youth Tour took on a different role the past two years. Upon the cancellation of the 2020 Youth Tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff from the co-ops started looking for ways to do something virtual. Most winners were granted scholarship money in lieu of the trip, but they were still able to participate in parts of the trip. NRECA hosted weekly video sessions where students heard from motivational speakers and learned about co-ops, D.C and each other. The students were also separated into their respective congressional districts and were able to take part in a video conference with their elected officials online.
This year, the students will spend a pair of days at their local electric cooperative alongside their peers and one day with a larger group split between six regions of the state. The delegates will hear from speakers including electric cooperative employees and Missouri Youth Tour alumni, including a current Secret Service agent who went on Youth Tour in 1995. The final speaker is Dan Meers — the man inside the KC Wolf mascot costume at Kansas City Chiefs games. They will video conference with their elected officials and take virtual tours of the U.S. Capitol, Arlington National Cemetery and FDR Memorial.
“Obviously, we would prefer to be able to host a traditional Youth Tour this year,” Chris says. “But we’re trying to replicate the process in Missouri as much as possible to honor the delegates’ achievements.”
The delegates will return in 2022 and carry on the Missouri Youth Tour traditions and become immersed in all that D.C. has to offer.
“That trip changed my life in so many different ways,” says Lexi, who was named to the Youth Leadership Council in 2015 and received the prestigious Glenn English Scholarship from NRECA in 2018. “There’s something special about that Missouri charm that all these teenagers with different interests and beliefs can get together. There’s so much room for growth and connection that expands beyond our individual backgrounds. I just loved it.”
For more information on Youth Tour visit www.electric.coop/our-organization/youth-programs or www.amec.coop/content/youth-programs.