Are we there yet? A Youth Tour journey

Olivia Velasquez speaking at the NRECA annual meeting
Olivia Velasquez delivers her powerful speech to the delegates of the NRECA annual meeting — an experience that helped propel her to attend Harvard University.

Olivia Velasquez grew up in Gilboa, a tiny, two-road village in northwest Ohio, and though her path has taken her far away, her home remains the center of her compass.

In 2013, as a sophomore at Pandora-Gilboa High School, Olivia was chosen by Hancock-Wood Electric Cooperative as a delegate to the Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives Youth Tour, an annual leadership program for high school students from families served by electric cooperatives. Since then, she’s made the most of each experience that has come her way.

Much more than a sightseeing trip, Youth Tour was established to inspire our next generation of leaders. The Ohio contingent joins cooperative youth from all over the country for a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C. Students visit important sites, meet members of their congressional delegation, and learn about both public service and the cooperative business model.

Olivia has taken the cooperative values to heart, incorporating Commitment to Community in her personal and professional life. “The Youth Tour trip enlightened me,” she says, “showing me that not only do cooperatives light up homes, but lives as well, by representing us, caring about us, and striving to make progress.”

Step by step

Youth Tour participants return home with a deeper understanding of what it takes to be a leader and the skills to put that into action. During the trip, each state selects a delegate to serve on Youth Leadership Council, which meets in D.C. about a month after Youth Tour concludes. Olivia was chosen by her peers to represent Ohio on YLC.

Olivia’s parents, Rick and Amy Velasquez, recognized her leadership characteristics from the outset. “Ever since she was small, she’s always been outspoken and independent,” Amy says. Olivia was a voracious reader, first listening to her mother read aloud to her and her sisters, then taking the books in her own hands. “I believe her love of learning came from all that reading,” Amy says.

YLC delegates play an important role during the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s annual meeting the following spring — they’re not only recognized on stage, but they have a hands-on experience with virtually every facet of the meeting. Olivia took her experience even another step; from the pool of YLC delegates nationwide, she was selected to be that year’s Youth Leadership Council national spokesperson — the first delegate from Ohio to win that honor.

Olivia’s speech at the NRECA annual meeting centered on the enduring lessons she gained from Youth Tour. “Although Youth Tour ended a mere week after we boarded that bus, the lessons I and my new friends learned will last a lifetime,” she said. “I finally figured out my own answer to that question: Are we there yet? Youth Tour taught me that we will never be there. Instead, we must continually ask ourselves these questions — make changes in the directions to make progress. In the end, that progress is our destination.”

After YLC

Not long after her YLC experience, Olivia was awarded the Ronald McDonald House Charities HACER National Scholarship, which was created in 1985 to help Hispanic high school students finance their college education. Given to only four students nationwide, the dollar amount is substantial — $100,000 — and with it, Olivia was able to take advantage of her acceptance to Harvard University.

Her participation with Youth Tour and YLC allowed her to meet people from all over the country whom she would never have had the chance to otherwise, and at Harvard, she expanded her scope even further — she tried Latin dancing, became a peer counselor, did laboratory research, studied abroad in Argentina, and made friendships with Alzheimer’s patients. “I felt like my mind was being opened day to day,” she says.

This spring, she graduated from Harvard with a degree in integrative biology and a secondary in mind, brain, and behavior. Now, she’s working at McLean Hospital, the Harvard-affiliated psychiatric facility, co-leading group therapy sessions and orienting new patients, with an eye toward medical school.

New experiences, new challenges

Olivia says her Youth Tour and YLC experience allowed her to meet people with big goals. She felt inspired by those around her, who were ambitious, yet grounded in their communities and their families. “You know you can do anything you want to do,” she says, “but you don’t really believe it until you see it in the people around you.”

There are some subtler learning opportunities inherent to Youth Tour that go beyond the history and the monuments. “Going to a brand-new place with people you don’t know is daunting, but it really is a great opportunity to learn how to get to know people,” Olivia says. Additionally, the trip opened her eyes to her own community.

“I gained a lot of pride in my state and my town, juxtaposing it with D.C.,” she says. “People in little towns like mine are heard, and this is how it’s done.”