Solid Foundations


Steve Freese
President and CEO

As kids from across rural Wisconsin prepare to go back to school, I think we must pause for a moment and think about how we can best help prepare them for the rest of their lives. The education they receive will be the foundation for their future decisions.

Your electric cooperative and the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) have sponsored several education programs designed to give these students leadership skills they wouldn’t normally get at their high school, and this year was no different. Each summer since 1964, students from our member electric cooperatives have been able to spend three days delving into the cooperative business model and inner workings of electric cooperatives through the Youth Leadership Conference sponsored by WECA.

More than 8,000 students have participated in this program to date.

The 2023-24 Youth Board members are: (L to R) Carson Welter, Oakdale Electric Cooperative Thomas Peters, Rock Energy Cooperative Mya Petersen, Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services Helen Clements, Vernon Electric Cooperative Jayden Mosley, Rock Energy Cooperative Ryther Gehrke, Richland Electric Cooperative Johnah Vircks (alternate), Clark Electric Cooperative

The students learn how to act like a board member of an electric cooperative—how to formulate decisions in running an electric utility. When they complete the three-day conference, I believe they have a whole new perspective about what it takes to keep the lights on, and their cell phones charged. This annual event allows high school students from across rural Wisconsin to develop specific leadership skills not available anywhere else. Many of these students have become leaders in their communities, work for the cooperative, and in several cases, run the cooperative. Over the years, some have even served in the legislature.

The students in this program elect a six-member WECA Youth Board, which plans the following year’s Youth Leadership Conference. Youth Board members can attend the NRECA Youth Tour and visit the WECA office and State Capitol legislative offices.

I’ve mentioned the NRECA Youth Tour in this column before. Electric cooperatives send high school students to Washington, D.C., for the trip of a lifetime each June. They receive more leadership training, visit the monuments, learn history, and meet with Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation.

Another feature of the Youth Leadership Conference is the annual WECA Essay Contest. The students are challenged to write on co-op-oriented subjects. They compete for three scholarships of $1,000, $500, and $250, redeemable at any accredited post-secondary educational institution in the U.S.

The education programs we sponsor are geared to help the future leaders of our electric cooperatives and might seem self-serving, but I know the leadership skills we give them help them no matter what they do in life. If you have high school-aged kids or grandkids, encourage them to participate in next year’s Youth Leadership Conference/essay contest, and you just may help lay down a great foundation for a future member of Congress.