Former OEC chief executive finds a calling in service

Tony Ahern, former CEO of Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, is using his engineering expertise to help people around the world.

For Tony Ahern, volunteer service work truly was a leap of faith. It has led him around the world, where he has helped bring water, electricity, and transportation options to those in need.

“When I first started doing these trips, it wasn’t as if I had a grand vision,” he says. “I just wanted to do something, so that’s what I did. I decided I would just go on faith that I would find the right projects. I didn’t need a whole game plan.”

Ahern, a chemical engineer and the retired CEO of Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, made his first service trip in 1992, when he went with a group to install a hydroelectric system to provide power to a hospital in Honduras. He later returned there to work on several other projects, including a series of footbridges and a large pontoon boat, needed in the community.

“I like doing things at the intersection of where I have skills and what can help people,” he says. “I want to go where I can be close to the people who will actually benefit — not just make-work projects, but projects that have a significant beneficial outcome.”

He’s been on 27 trips with various groups such as Engineers Without Borders (EWB), Heart to Honduras, and International Technical Electric and Construction (I-TEC) — a group that provides infrastructure support to missionary groups around the world — using vacation time before he retired, and always paying his own way.

Most recently, he joined with I-TEC to help install solar panels at Restoration Gateway, a Ugandan mission village that previously relied on diesel generators to power its hospital, dental clinic, and other buildings.

“When it was time to take an X-ray or drill someone’s tooth, they had to go out in the back and start the generator, then hope it would stay on for the entire task,” Ahern says. “With this new system, they don’t need to do that. There’s enough electricity for drilling, lighting, water pumps, all that, and they sized it so that on most days, it accumulates enough in the batteries to get through the night and even the next day if the sun doesn’t come out.”

The system was built in the U.S. over a period of months before the trip, then shipped in a container to Uganda, where the I-TEC group installed it, from the ground up, in a little over two weeks. Ahern says, mostly joking, that it took about three weeks to recover from the trip, but says the rewards make it all worthwhile.

“To be able to see the difference you can make in people’s lives — that’s what moves me, what motivates me,” he says. “Every now and then, someone will say, ‘I would love to do that,’ thinking that they can’t. But you know what? If I can do it, anyone can. You just have to make up your mind and do it.”