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Hearts and soles

Hoosier linemen put lights in Guatemalan homes; new shoes on children’s feet

An electric cooperative lineman’s shoes are hard to fill, especially when there’s a pair of heavy metal climbing hooks attached to them. But his heart? That’s a different matter.

Each of the four Project Indiana construction trips into rural Guatemala has brought electricity to villages that never have had electricity before. Electricity was Project Indiana’s mission. But each trip has produced its own example of linemen’s giant hearts filled to overflowing with compassion. On each trip, the linemen have dug deep into their own pockets to meet additional needs they’ve recognized in the hardscrabble villages where the people have so little.

Project Indiana is a non-profit organization formed by Indiana’s electric cooperatives with the vision of bringing electricity to developing rural communities around the globe and providing other ongoing support for the residents there to enjoy better, healthier lives.

On the spring 2019 trip to San Jacinto in eastern Guatemala, the 14 Indiana electric cooperative linemen and four additional support staff members purchased about 200 pairs of shoes for children in the village. Even before the trip began, Whitewater Valley REMC, based in Liberty, Indiana, donated $1,000 toward this special trip-end ritual. It’s a service that began on the first trip in 2012.

The day after energizing the village in the green knobby karst hills, the group made a trip to a larger town to the west of where the linemen worked — to a large market. Some 200 pairs of rubbery croc-style shoes were purchased for tiny feet of the littlest kids up to larger children sizes at a shoe outlet amid an array of shops selling all types of dry goods and foods cooked right beside the crowded street. The shoes were stuffed into large yellow bags and carried back to the vehicles. The linemen also bought two piñatas and enough hard candy to fill them for the village celebration the next day.

The next morning was a holiday at school. The mid-morning celebration, planned on the grounds around the Catholic church in the center of the tiny village, would honor the Indiana crews with marimba music, Mayan dancing, incense, both the Guatemalan and American national anthems, and prayers. There would be speechifying from locals and gifts of Guatemalan flags and small tokens to the Indiana crew, games and a community pitch-in meal.

Before that, however, the linemen had one last gift to bestow — new shoes.

The linemen lined up the pairs by size, smallest to largest, on tables in a large classroom and invited the kids in in waves. It felt a little like Walmart on Black Friday. The kids rushed in excitedly. Older kids, waiting their turn outside, peeked through the windows to watch.

“The kids were so excited to get a new pair of shoes,” said Jamie Bell, a NineStar lineman who helped coordinate the 2019 trip. “I’m not sure they cared if the shoes fit or not. I feel they just wanted to have a new pair that wasn’t worn out.”

The kids would come in, some with their parents or grandparents, and sit in their tiny chairs. A lineman would size up each child’s foot and grab a pair, rip open the cellophane package with their teeth and check the fit. Even on their knees before the children, linemen would bend way down as they slipped new shoes on the tiny feet, push on the toe checking for size, and look each child in the eye. A nod and a smile meant good to go, or sometimes, a giggle told the linemen he was way off, and he’d grab another size and try again.

“We did our best to make sure the shoes gave them a little room to grow,” said Bell. “The biggest thing was seeing the joy of both kids and parents.”

After all the kids passed through, the remaining shoes were given to the school along with enough money to buy another 50 pairs for the kids who either didn’t receive the correct size or weren’t able to attend that day. 

On the 2017 Project Indiana trip to the western remote highlands, the crew purchased shoes for the village children and raised money for the local school.

In 2015, in an area not far from the 2019 location, the crew purchased school supplies and raised money to support the family of an elderly patriarch in the village who had lost his sight.

In 2012, the first trip, in the western mountains near the Mexican border, the crew was moved by the story of an 8-year-old girl taking care of her epileptic father, blind mother and younger brother. The crew built the family a table from scrap lumber, purchased clothes for the family and then took up a collection that paid off what was left of the family’s mortgage — about $100 in U.S. currency but an almost insurmountable amount for the family — so the family could keep its small hut and parcel of land.“What I’ve learned about lineman after having the honor of working with them for over 30 years, is they are public servants first. It’s built into their DNA,” said Ron Holcomb, president and CEO of Tipmont REMC and a Project Indiana board member who’s been on two of the four projects. “Whether they are restoring electric service in freezing weather or providing shoes for children in lands far away, they are the heart and soul of our cooperatives.”

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