Steve Rhodes lives for challenges. As the CEO of the Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative (CHELCO), he leads an organization of 140 employees and serves more than 48,000 members in four counties in the Florida panhandle. He is also responsible for a utility services subsidiary with another 50 employees and is the immediate past president of the Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives board of directors.
But Steve thinks it’s time to raise the stakes. Soon, Steve and his family will take the message of rural electrification to new heights.
Their mission: Climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise $30,000 for the NRECA International Foundation to support rural electrification around the world.
At more than 19,300 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent and will be far from an easy climb. But Steve and his family of hikers have been in intensive training to reach the peak with the goal of personal, family, and global growth motivating them the whole way up.
“It’s the perfect combination of family, pushing our limits, memory making, and philanthropy all bundled into one trip,” says daughter Samantha Rhodes, who recently joined the staff of Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, the statewide service organization for electric co-ops, as Country Living’s associate editor.
The NRECA (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) International Foundation, a philanthropic organization created in 1985, partners with NRECA International, U.S. electric cooperatives, and others to foster economic development and improve lives in developing countries. The foundation is supported solely through voluntary donations of time, money, and materials to support dozens of projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The foundation’s goal is twofold: accelerate the pace of electrification to bring safe, reliable, and affordable power to the developing world, and to refine new ideas that can enhance and improve existing programs. But that takes funding, and that’s where Steve, Tami, and Samantha want to make an impact.
“It’ll be the experience of a lifetime, and the best part is that we all get to share it as a family — as the best things in life should be,” Samantha added. “So when the means and timing combine perfectly with an open door of opportunity, you have to make the most of the circumstances God has granted you. And that’s just what we’re doing.”
Samantha also explained that the Rhodes motto is “Family comes first,” something Steve instilled from a young age. Her brother, Nick, will be supporting the family adventure from afar.
“Over the years, I’ve come to realize that adversity builds strength,” Steve says. “Whether we overcome a challenge or not, we are better for having taken it on. I think this holds true for building character, as well as building and strengthening bonds between family members. By facing this challenge together, win or lose, we share an experience that we’ll always remember because of the difficulty involved. A vacation will never provide the inner satisfaction and bonding that climbing a mountain does.”
Before joining CHELCO, Steve was CEO of Kosciusko REMC in Indiana. It was during this time that Steve first became involved with NRECA’s international work. Steve worked with other co-ops in the state to send volunteer linemen and other personnel to Guatemala to construct electric lines in a rural village. Through their combined efforts, they brought electricity to those who had never known its benefits.
“I saw firsthand the excitement in my linemen’s eyes and in their words when they returned home and shared their stories,” Steve says. “It touched them deeply. Their experiences lit a fire in me, and if we can play just a small role to raise funds for similar efforts throughout the world, I’m in.”
Since 1962, NRECA International has provided access to electricity to 110 million people in 42 developing countries in the world. The team has helped facilitate the growth of improved health, education, and economic opportunities, resulting in increased agricultural productivity, millions of new jobs in micro and small enterprises, and higher incomes and quality of life for many rural communities.
Tanzania, where the Rhodes family will ascend Mount Kilimanjaro, is one of the countries identified in the recently signed Electrify Africa legislation that would benefit greatly from aid and assistance to receive reliable and affordable electricity for its population. Only 10 percent of Africa’s rural population has access to electricity, according to NRECA International.
“If you think about it, nothing improves a life more than access to electricity,” Steve says. “From daily chores to nighttime security to modern technology, nothing has a bigger impact than electricity. As a family, we want to do our part.”
To follow the Rhodes’ journey and support their mission, visit their blog at www.RhodestoKili.com. Donations can be made online or by mailing a check to NRECA International Foundation, Attention: Rhodes To Kili, P.O. Box 75472, Baltimore, MD 21275-5472.
Zuraidah Hoffman is the communications manager for NRECA International, based in Arlington, Virginia.