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An Unforgettable Experience: Electrifying Tierra Blanca Sebol

On March 9, 16 linemen from all across Ohio, including Pioneer’s Leader Lineman John Holcomb, set out to electrify Tierra Blanca Sebol, a small Guatemalan village in the mountainous northern region of the country. Project Ohio, a collaborative effort between Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association International, previously electrified two other villages in Guatemala. This was the third trip for the project and the first year a Pioneer lineman participated.

John set out to make the most of the trip. He and his wife spent nights and weekends on Google Earth, looking at the village’s territory and terrain, watching documentaries about Guatemala, and even learning some of the language.

Additionally, John built three light displays out of recycled insulators and other materials at his own expense to raffle off as part of Pioneer’s Powering Possibilities fundraiser. Those light displays netted $400 in donations, a portion of the $1,900 Pioneer employees donated to purchase water filtration systems, shoes, and school supplies for the people of the village.

As they drove into the village on the first day, John says, the people were glowing — the excitement from the villagers was high because they knew what was to come. The Project Ohio linemen were able to get started working right away — climbing the poles that had been set in the ground by EMRE, the local electric company they worked alongside.

Each day started with group prayer and raising the American flag in the courtyard with the Guatemalan linemen. “The most rewarding part was building the lines and seeing the smiles on their faces,” says John. “It’s a different culture, and it was humbling.”

The work the EMRE team had done in advance of the Project Ohio team’s arrival allowed the linemen to be efficient and complete more work than anticipated in a shorter amount of time. No one realized it at the time, but that head start ended up being crucial, as the trip and the project would be cut short due to the heightening concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ohio linemen were divided between overhead work and inside electrical wiring. They’d planned to switch roles halfway through; however, realizing they may not have as much time as they thought, they decided not to switch so they could work as efficiently as possible.

The men worked approximately nine hours every day for seven consecutive days, spending about an hour and half driving to and from the village each day.

John says the trip was what he’s used to doing from a physical standpoint, and mentally, it was no different than working out of territory, which he’s done on nearly a dozen occasions in his 23-year career at Pioneer.

Thanks to the early work and the increased urgency due to COVID-19, the team finished about 98% of its work just a week in. They were about four days ahead of schedule and hoped to turn the lights on by the end of their seventh day.

“We couldn’t have done it and completed the work as quickly without the extra hands from EMRE,” says John.

Unfortunately, the seventh day would end abruptly, as the team was notified that Guatemala was closing its borders at the end of the day. The team loaded up and headed for the airport in hopes of catching one of the final flights out of Guatemala City.

Luck was not on their side. Their flight back to the U.S. was canceled, rescheduled, and then canceled again. The borders were officially closed.

Leaning heavily on multiple government officials to help them return to the U.S., the team received good news the next day. The linemen wasted no time getting on a chartered flight to Florida, and after another long night, they arrived back in Ohio on March 19, three days earlier than originally planned.

When asked if he’d do it all again, John says, “Oh yeah, I would like to do it again.” He hopes there is a next time, and that then, he’ll get to see the project all the way through.

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