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Youth to Washington tour – more than just a trip

By Bethanny Lawson, Youth Tour participant

 Bethanny Lawson and Chase Mayne in formal attireOne may not expect a weeklong trip to our nation’s capital to be a spiritual journey, but mine certainly was.

Every year, a couple thousand high schoolers and chaperones make their way to D.C. to spend a week of the summer touring all the sights, museums and memorials. It’s a trip sponsored by the nation’s rural electric cooperatives, created to grow leaders and educate people on what co-ops are all about.

I was blessed to be one of EnerStar’s representatives on this year’s trip. I expected it to be fun, especially since it has been a dream of mine to tour D.C. for years. I did not expect it to change my entire life in the ways it did.

Forty-four states participate in this annual event, including Alaska and Hawaii. This means that for one week during the summer, kids from all over the country are all in the same two hotels in D.C. together. Part of my time in D.C., I was with my Illinois group only, and the rest of the time we were with the nation’s youth as a whole.

When the Illinois’ group was touring, we made it to every last thing there was to see in D.C. We sat inside the Supreme Court, walked through the Holocaust Museum, watched the Marine Corps Sunset Parade from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, spoke with protestors outside the White House and walked the Gettysburg battlefields.

There wasn’t a single day on that trip I didn’t have tears in my eyes.

Every story the memorials told was a story of defeat, disaster, sorrow and, in the end, death for all of them. But through each of those stories, hope, joy, victory and promises of a bright future were born. My people, past, present and future, inspire me in so many ways. Every stop was a reminder that one day, people will look back on our story. We have a duty to make this generation’s chapter in the history books a meaningful one.

While the tour alone would have been enough to make this the trip of a lifetime, it was not the only highlight of my time in D.C.

Many companies have conferences or events for their leaders and marketers. They bring them together to educate them on their company, products, and brand, to train them to be better leaders, and get them excited about the future they are a part of.

NRECA’s Youth Tour was no different. I will admit, learning about electricity didn’t seem all that appealing to me even when I applied for this trip. But now that I am home, I have never been so appreciative of my electric co-op, and I am so pumped up and impressed by how cooperatives work.

Two nights during the week, all the states were gathered together in the Hyatt Hotel. The first night was essentially a leadership conference for high schoolers.

We heard from so many leaders from co-ops, so many people who live their lives as an example of how we should live ours. In a sense, it was like the biggest family gathering I’d ever seen, because co-ops are like families and care about each other as such.

My eyes were opened to how many opportunities there are to serve and lead. People spoke to us who were small-town folk making a big splash in their small ponds, they were people who have gone overseas to work with those who don’t have the blessings we do in America, and they were people who work in the highest branches of government, participating in leading our nation.

I was struck by the hearts of the people leading us. We were instilled with pride in our nation, pride in our flag, and pride in what our youth can accomplish as the next generation. We were treated like gold.

The event breathed life into me. Standing with my peers as we all sang the national anthem together made my heart swell in ways I have never experienced.

The second night was for a farewell party, and I must say it was a party to rival all other parties. Getting to meet and interact with people my age from all over the country was quite an experience. I love my hometown and where I come from, but it was incredible to see how many cultures America holds within it beyond the corn fields. Our world seemed so big and so small at the same time while I was in D.C.

People were just as fascinated with what my state is like as I was with theirs. One moment I recall is sitting in Ford’s theater answering another group’s questions about Abraham Lincoln. One of the kids asked, “How do you know so much about Lincoln?” We just grinned and replied, “Well, we are quite literally from the land of Lincoln.”

One of my favorite things to witness on this trip was our politicians and representatives in person. It’s easy to forget they are simply people, as we are. What we see on the internet and in the news is not necessarily what they are like in reality.

The commonly quoted phrase, “every villain is a hero in his own mind,” applied to meeting with senators and congressmen, too. So often those with opposing mindsets are framed as enemies or “the bad guys.”

But none of the men or women I spoke to treated each other like enemies or saw those who disagreed with them as bad people.

Beyond the cameras and Facebook articles, the democrats and republicans are friends, the liberals and the conservatives have the same hearts. I found myself nodding my head in agreement with people I never would have expected to agree with.

Our methods may be different, but at our core, we all ultimately want what is right and want to better our world. Maybe what we believe is right differs, maybe the ways we attack problems don’t line up, but at least we can appreciate that we’re all making an effort and fighting for what we believe in—America.

Bethanny and another studen at the Vietnam War memorialSo here we stand, in June 2018. No matter what anyone says, no matter how bad things look, no matter the ways current events are portrayed, we are still one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Those words ring ever so true, and I intend to dedicate my life to making sure they stay true.

I went to D.C. hoping to have a fun time exploring a city I’ve always wanted to visit. I came home with a hundred new ideas on how to change the world, and I am forever grateful to my electric co-op for making it all happen.

Article originally printed in The Prairie Press in Paris, Ill.

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