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One hundred forty-seven young Texans made history in 2017 as the largest group of Texas teens to visit Washington, D.C., on the Government-in-Action Youth Tour, the annual action-packed trip sponsored by electric cooperatives. The state also sent the most high school-age students of any of the 46 states that participated this June.
“You’re the largest delegation,” said Braden Huggins, a 2016 alum sponsored by HILCO Electric Cooperative, who welcomed the 2017 group of high school students and recent graduates at orientation. “Every chance you get when you talk to someone else from another state, make sure they know that Texas is the largest state. You gotta let ’em know. Brag about it.”
With a group that large—large enough to justify a chartered flight from Austin to Dulles International Airport, three private buses and two floors of an Arlington hotel—a kid might blend into the crowd. Instead, the experience of exploring icons of American government, heritage and culture with that many people in the same stage of life helps each student better see his or her place in the world and be inspired to make a difference.
“It takes one person to change the world for the better,” said Thelma McGhee, a 1965 participant sponsored by Comanche EC, during orientation. “That person is you.”
Over the program’s 53 years, Texas co-ops have sent 4,030 teens to Washington. Today, Youth Tour’s whirlwind itinerary features more than 25 destinations in the state and national capitals, inspirational speakers, appointments with elected officials, tours, dances and an endless parade of pizza, sub sandwiches and Oreos. To say it is a marathon is an understatement because, in fact, it’s closer to three marathons. This year, Tracy Begley, a chaperone from Grayson-Collin EC, logged 68.76 miles walking June 7–16. “… with 49.75 hours of sleep in 10 days,” said Begley, one of 18 chaperones. “Yeehaw!”
In honor of being the state with the most students, here are some of the most memorable moments for the young Texans who went on the 2017 trip.
Ambika Kapil so admired the beauty of the U.S. Capitol that she felt compelled to get a picture of herself there. She turned to the closest man in a suit for help.
“I was like, ‘Hey, can you do a picture?’ ” recalled Kapil, sponsored by CoServ. The man agreed and offered to be in the photo, too. She hesitated, so he snapped a photo of her alone. “I was like, ‘Thanks, sir,’ and walked away,” she said. “Then I heard this girl say, ‘Mike Pence!’ ” The vice president of the United States had just taken her photo, which she then accidentally deleted.
Other embarrassing moments brought laughter to the journey, too, such as when Jarrett Pistole from Bartlett EC ripped his pants at a dance (“I was doing a whip, and it just got a little too ‘turnt up,’ ” he said); and when Mia Diaz from Lamb County EC lost her brand-new cellphone in Austin and had to have it shipped overnight to Washington; and when a chaperone tripped and fell (without serious injury) during a tour of Capitol Hill while a congressional intern pressured her to hurry. Clap, clap, clap. “Come on, ladies,” said the intern, oblivious to the chaperone lying on the marble floor.
For her humility, Annette Calderon from Comanche EC earned a place on the Youth Leadership Council, a national program that invites one student from every state participating in Youth Tour to return to Washington for a leadership workshop then attend the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s annual meeting. During an interview, Calderon made the judges proud with her answer to the question, “Why should we select you as the Texas representative?” She responded by saying, “I am not above anyone … ” and described how she would use the leadership lessons of YLC to help children, as she aspires to become a pediatric oncologist.
Other proud moments included hearing young Texans ask intelligent and relevant questions of their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill and watching Bailey McClure from Swisher EC visit the Newseum, where she expressed her opinion by pinning a sticker on the “no” side of an interactive sign that asked if hate speech should be banned. “Because what is hate speech?” she asked. “That’s purposely vague.”
For Abigail Morales of Magic Valley EC, the reality of being in Washington didn’t sink in until she stood before the Lincoln Memorial. “When I was looking at the monument, I got so emotional ... I can’t believe it’s real,” she said. “It didn’t hit me that we were here until I touched one of the columns.”
Another moment of realization came on Creighton Rogers’ 18th birthday, which he celebrated in Washington. That morning, the group encountered 25 military veterans visiting the capital to see war memorials, thanks to the Honor Flight Network. Rogers, sponsored by Rusk County EC, shook the veterans’ hands and thanked them for their service. As he did, one gentleman said he’d served in World War II and photographed the dropping of an atomic bomb when he was 18 years old—the same age as Rogers.
Roaring laughter could be heard from the halls of the Kennedy Center while the young Texans watched Shear Madness. The flexible and partially ad-libbed production humorously depicts a murder mystery but changes outcomes based on audience interaction. The Youth Tour participants demonstrated their spirit of cooperation by chiming in with information about the case, eventually singling out a culprit. Before being led off the stage in handcuffs, the actor playing that night’s chosen criminal said he had one last remark: “The stars at night …” he said, and the audience—mostly Texas Youth Tour students—finished the line with “are big and bright—clap, clap, clap, clap—deep in the heart of Texas!” Applause erupted.
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler invited his young East Texas constituents to the Capitol for a special behind- the-scenes nighttime tour. Four students—Rogers; Josie Heflin from Upshur Rural EC; and Jess Hill and Brianna Anding from Deep East Texas EC—got an up-close look at features including the rotunda and the Senate floor. For Heflin, the highlight of the evening was looking out over the city from the balcony where presidential inaugurations are held.
“My favorite part was to see how lit up it was,” she said. “It was as if you could see for miles and miles. If you look to your left, you could see the monuments. If you look to the right, you can see the Kennedy Center.”
Youth Tour also offered unexpected moments—little life lessons—such as when Abby Busby from Bandera EC gleefully figured out the best way to wheel her suitcase off an escalator; and when Kallie Cox from Swisher EC and Gwyneth James from CoServ discussed the differences between “tacos” and “burritos,” and “pop” and “coke.” More surprises included a Secret Service agent at the White House answering all the questions of Caroline Wakefield from Houston County EC, including if he would dive in front of a bullet (he said it would be an honor); and a chaperone catching a bull snake hatchling she found slithering over tea cups in a gift store at Mount Vernon.
Ben Seago from Bryan Texas Utilities knelt at the grave of his great-grandfather at Arlington National Cemetery. Using an app, he navigated among the more than 400,000 tombstones to pay his respects to Army Lt. Gen. Edward J. O’Neill, who served in World War II.
Moments before, the delegation witnessed four of their peers—Chloe Hunt from Navasota Valley EC; Jordan Pyatt from Victoria EC; Jack Morgan from Medina EC; and Bentley Harbison from South Plains EC—participate in a ceremony to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Seago’s great-grandfather was the commander who traveled to France in 1958 to select the body of the unidentified WWI soldier to be reburied in that very tomb.
After Seago rose to his feet, he brushed away his knee prints from the grass with his toe. He said he understands how the retired lieutenant general “not only contributed to an amazing country but that he brought up an amazing family.”
The trip offered other moving moments, too, such as when Kristen Wolfe from Farmers EC wept in the Holocaust Memorial Museum, prompting Justin Morrison of Bandera EC to offer a consoling shoulder; and when Laryssa Garcia from Magic Valley EC searched for her uncle’s name among the 58,195 engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
More tears flowed when it came time to say goodbye on the 10th day, back in Austin, when hardly a dry eye watched the farewell celebration.
Addressing the group that final night, Calderon reflected on their journey. She said the memorials honoring leaders in government, history and faith inspired her. “How grand it is to say, ‘I want to be the same as them,’ ” she said. “I want to be the best American citizen I can be.”
Suzanne Featherston, a former Texas Electric Cooperatives communications specialist who served as a Youth Tour chaperone for the first time in 2017, is now the editor of Mining Quarterly in northeastern Nevada.