White River Valley works to lift up the members they serve
Missouri’s rural electric cooperatives are about much more than keeping the electricity flowing to their member-owners. While doing so safely and in an affordable manner is one of the primary tasks, their other undertakings can be seen throughout the community. It could be sending that high schooler on the “Trip of a Lifetime” to Washington, D.C. or volunteering to beautify a downtown or neglected neighborhood. Co-ops exist to be interwoven into the community.
That’s definitely the case in southwest Missouri at White River Valley Electric Cooperative. The Branson-based co-op serves more than 33,400 members in the region.
“We take the cooperative principle of Commitment to Community seriously here,” says Cassie Cunningham, manager of communications and member engagement at White River. “Most everyone that works here, lives here. So we know how important it is to bolster the community where we live, work and play.”
Helping out is nothing new at the cooperative. They’ve been doing so for decades by hosting food drives, donating money to worthy causes and empowering their employees to do good.
Food insecurity impacts about 15 percent of the population of southwest Missouri. Since 2014, the co-op has hosted an annual fall food drive — Power to Turn Hunger into Hope — to help pantries restock their shelves before the end-of-year holidays.
“Traditionally, we have an optional payroll deduction for employees,” Cassie says. “We have employees who volunteer to stand outside grocery stores and collect donations of food, toiletries or cash to help as well. We usually do a couple locations in each county and then distribute it.”
COVID-19 threw their normal plan into flux in 2020 and an alternative was needed, especially considering the demand for donations was greater this past year. The co-op wanted to get the most bang for their buck so they partnered with Springfield-based Ozark Food Harvest which could stretch their money even further and provide four meals for every $1 raised.
The food drive turned virtual with money being raised from community and employee donations. A friendly inter-office competition at White River led to the Ava office being the top earner. That money was paired with a donation from the co-op that was matched by a Sharing Success grant, a charitable giving program offered through CoBank, a Denver-based cooperative bank serving rural industries across the country. All combined the group raised an incredible $25,974 which in turn can provide up to 103,896 meals to those in need in the area.
“We are grateful to belong to a community that cares so deeply for its members, especially in an area heavily impacted by the pandemic,” says Nathan Stearns, community programs coordinator for the co-op. “I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
While Power to Turn Hunger into Hope was a huge success in 2020, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the co-op does. They utilize the popular Operation Round Up program as well, where members can voluntarily round up their bills each month to the nearest dollar. This small amount is made quite large when combined with all the members in the program. Members round up between 1 and 99 cents per month, averaging out to about $6 per year. Since White River implemented the program 28 years ago, they’ve returned more than $4 million back into their community.
One of the programs Operation Round Up supports at White River is Power Up, an annual education grant program supporting projects outside of the normal public school funding. The grant was increased from a maximum of $500 to $750 in 2020.
“It’s for things in the classroom, after- or summer-school programs as long as it’s enhancing the learning experience,” Cassie says. “Our Operation Round Up board awards these grants using set criteria, mainly which ones have the most overall impact. Then they look for things that can be used year over year and not just once.”
This past year, the board awarded 135 teachers from 19 schools totaling more than $85,000 to further education in the Ozarks.
Other projects taken on by the co-op include an online educational resource page for students, teachers and parents to use as a virtual learning tool. They also launched Wi-Fi hotspots in each office parking lot to assist those with limited high-speed internet access or those in under-served areas. They’ve helped local medical centers get access to low- or no-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update equipment in the rural hospitals. They utilize such opportunities to help many businesses in the region.
Every holiday season, the employees of each office raise money amongst themselves and choose a worthy cause. The Branson headquarters has bought and delivered gifts and needed items to senior centers in the past, and even a pandemic couldn’t slow down that good deed in 2020.
“The simplest things can mean the most,” says Cassie. “Before this past year, we could go in and visit and do activities like play bingo, but of course we couldn’t in 2020. Things we might take for granted like maybe socks and a scarf can mean so much. It’s just heartwarming!”
All of these community endeavors are impressive on their own, but combined they can make a true impact on the area overall.
“What we see across the board on all of our community programs is a domino effect,” Cassie says. “We promote rural economic development which helps bring in jobs. Our partnerships with schools helps with workforce development. Our food drives and monthly grants help those who are struggling and need it most. We’re trying to do our part to make things better, Commitment to Community. The more our programs thrive, the more our communities thrive.”