High-school junior Jalen Lewis of Cary was selected by Wake Electric to attend the 2016 Youth Tour in Washington D.C. in June. Jalen, 17, attends Enloe Magnet High School. He will join nearly 1,600 students from across the United States for a one-week all expenses paid trip to the nation’s capital. Jalen will also receive a $1,000 scholarship in his high school senior year upon enrollment in a college or university.

Anyone who’s looked after a group of 16- and 17-year-olds in Washington, D.C., for Youth Tour knows how challenging and physically exhausting it is, not to mention how hot and humid the nation’s capital can be in the middle of June.

But there’s a reason the program has not just endured but thrived for half a century – because of exemplary students like Jalen.

Students dance on a boat cruise down the Potomac and see the roots of American history. They learn about electric co-ops and grassroots political advocacy. They live in close quarters for up to a week and are given a small taste of freedom and independence. They sleep a little and talk a lot.

These students become college roommates, professional colleagues, lifelong friends and sometimes even spouses. For some, it’s a fun trip that later brings fond memories. To others, Youth Tour inspires kids to discover the adults they’re going to be.

For those accepted into the Youth Leadership Council (YLC), the experience is even richer. These students – one representative from each participating state – work the congressional action center at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) Annual Meeting. They also participate in a special meeting one month after the Youth Tour to delve more deeply into leadership and cooperative grassroots issues.

Much has changed during the past half-century years since Youth Tour was born, but the one constant has been the students, who never fail to be amazed, inspired, humbled and grateful, according to the faithful electric co-op employees who bring new groups back to Washington every year.

Rooted in politics

Youth Tour was born from a speech at the 1957 NRECA Annual Meeting by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. He was a longtime advocate of electric co-ops, having lobbied for the creation of Pedernales Electric Cooperative in 1937 as a young politician in Texas. “If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents,” the future president said.

With that encouragement, Texas electric co-ops began sending summer interns to work in the senator’s Washington, D.C., office. In 1958, an electric co-op in Iowa sponsored the first group of 34 young people on a weeklong study tour of the nation’s capital. Later that same year, another busload came to Washington from Illinois. The idea grew, and other states sent busloads of students throughout the summer. By 1959, the Youth Tour had grown to 130 participants.

In 1964, NRECA began to coordinate joint activities among the state delegations and suggested that co-op representatives from each state arrange to be in Washington, D.C., during Youth Tour week. The first year of the coordinated tour included about 400 teens from 12 states.

As word spread, the program grew—and grew and grew—until no hotel was large enough to house all of its participants.

Karen Bailey, NRECA’s longtime Youth Tour coordinator, said it was a relief when the Hyatt in Crystal City, Va., was built in the late 1990s. Most states’ participants stay there, and some bunk down the street at the Hilton.

“Now, we have 500 rooms at the Hyatt, 200 at the Hilton, and it works out perfectly,” she says.

The prospect of contracting 700 hotel rooms years in advance doesn’t seem to faze Bailey, who has worked on the Youth Tour program for 25 years and has been the main coordinator for the past 15. Since 1999, she’s seen the number of participating states rise from 32 to 43 and the number of students from around a thousand to surpassing 1,600 last year.

To find out more about the Rural Electric Youth Tour, visit nreca.coop/what-we-do/youthprograms and check out Wake Electric’s Youth Tour details at wemc.com.