Meet Caleigh Pickard, From Passion to Powerful
The Cooperative Journey Begins
High school might not have taught me how to file my taxes, balance a checkbook, or manage a household, but it did give me an opportunity of a lifetime. Never could I have imagined six short years ago a trip to our nation’s capital would suddenly turn into a lifelong passion but let’s face it – what seventeen-year-old ever really knows a good thing when it’s right in front of them? My passion for travel is what hooked me into experiencing this unknown venture, but the power of electric cooperatives is what ultimately captivated my young mind and subsequently stretched it far beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
In late fall of 2016, my economics teacher approached me with an application to “Youth Tour.” Having no clue what this program was, it only took a couple of quick glances at the application broadcasting “trip of a lifetime” and “all-expense paid trip to our nation’s capital” to pique my curiosity. I thought to myself ‘why not?’ An all-expenses paid trip to DC, definitely a great way to kick off my senior year of high school. Totally forgetting I had mailed in an application; I soon received a call for an interview. Enticed again with the thought of a free trip to DC, I went out on a whim and set up an interview still not having any understanding of electric cooperatives. As I was driving up to First Electric Cooperative’s massive headquarters in Jacksonville, Arkansas, all I could think of was the only thing I even know about electric cooperatives is they keep the lights on at my home. Yes, I knew at that point I was in way over my head.
I was delving into an unknown world but lucky for me, the Youth Tour committee took a chance on me. I was one of three students selected from my local cooperative and soon joined 40+ other Arkansas high school juniors and seniors for a cross country bus trip to Washington DC. The thought of laying eyes on the Lincoln Memorial and experiencing the Smithsonian via Night of the Museum style was exhilarating.
Little did I know at that time my trip would be a game changer for me. It sparked something in me I had no idea even existed. My passion for travel and experiences would soon become a passion for public power and cooperatives.
NRECA Youth Tour
The National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association Youth Tour has been bringing thousands of teens from rural America to the nation’s capital for over fifty years. Sponsored by their local electric cooperative, teenagers have an opportunity to see and learn about historic monuments, meet and interact with elected officials, and most importantly immerse themselves into a world of recognizing and understanding how much of an impact electric cooperatives have on their communities daily. All of this while also meeting young adults from all over the United States and creating lasting friendships in the process.
Youth Leadership Council
While on Youth Tour, each participating state selects one delegate to represent their state for the upcoming year on the Youth Leadership Council. These students play a vital role in NRECA’s PowerXchange Conference and receive educational opportunities for leadership workshops focused on the electric cooperative industry. Once again, Arkansas took a chance on me when I was selected as the Arkansas Youth Leadership Council delegate for 2016-2017.
To say this opportunity was life changing would be an understatement. During my time as the Arkansas representative, I learned so much about electric cooperatives but something I did not expect to gain was the lifelong friendships I developed with delegates and sponsors from all over the United States. My connections reach far and wide and I am forever thankful.
After being immersed in the electric cooperatives for a little over a year, I started college continuing the deep passion the cooperative principles instilled in me. I wanted to continue to feed my passion; I just was not sure what my next steps entailed. Soon I discovered I could apply for a staff assistant position and return to Youth Tour and Youth Leadership Council serving in a new role. I enthusiastically applied and was selected to work alongside some of the brightest young adults across the country. Since 2019, I have been returning to Youth Tour as a staff assistant and building on the solid foundation this program gave to me. I had the unique opportunities to mentor a handful of delegates each year, produce an online version of Youth Tour, and expand knowledge in the cooperative industry. I wore my “blue shirt” proudly, continuing to do so even today. This past June, Youth Tour took place in person for the first time since the pandemic. It was remarkably encouraging to see that although a pandemic altered a plethora of plans, what Youth Tour stands for did not. The cooperative principles are unwavering.
Youth Tour, Youth Leadership Council, and the staff assistant programs have stretched my relationships nationwide. From Beth Knudson, director of youth programs with the NRECA, who is by far my biggest advocate and mentor to Daniel Bischoff, whom I met through this program. Not only is he one of my best friends to this day but he also saw a passion in me thus referring me for my current position. Since joining the Powerful team as a project manager, I am once again sharing my passion for the world of electric cooperatives and their guiding principles.
The power in the flip of a switch is something one should never take for granted. It’s astonishing to me that in a little over a century we can electrify rural America, and within the past two years we’ve dug deep into implementing rural broadband.
Though I may be young, I understand rural America. I represent rural America. I am a member of my local electric cooperative, Ozarks Electric Cooperative here in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and have spent the past few years with hundreds of students who face the challenges of rural America head on.
First Electric Cooperative took a chance on me and changed my perspective forever. That is just what the electric cooperatives do. I have loved my role managing website projects for cooperatives and their communicators because I understand who they are serving.
We are creating something so much more than a website- it is a vital tool to reach and access humans in rural America who are encouraged to make a difference and have their voices heard. It is POWERFUL and I’m honored to be a small part of it.