Extended Cooperative Experience

Brayden Schmidt, AEC Youth Tour Winner, has been fortunate to experience the cooperative world on many different platforms. He talks about his experiences and opportunities that the youth program blessed him with below.  He gives credit to these programs for molding him into the young leader he is today. Schmidt is currently pursuing a double degree in electrical engineering and computer science at Wichita State University with hopes of joining a cooperative family following graduation. There is no doubt that Brayden Schmidt would be an asset in any work industry. Alfalfa Electric is proud of Brayden and all he has accomplished. Enjoy the ride as he tells about his youth experiences below.

“Leaders are made, not born.” Vince Lombardi, head football coach of the Green Bay Packers 1959-1967. Like many Americans, I love football; the Packers are my favorite team. Lombardi knew how to make leaders and churn out the best of the best, much like my experiences with electric cooperatives.

For the past four summers, I’ve spent much of my time with cooperatives. In 2018, I was fortunate enough to win the trip of a lifetime through Southern Pioneer Electric in Medicine Lodge, KS. This was my first but certainly not my last interaction with cooperatives. Since then, I have participated in ten different leadership camps and roles with cooperatives. Cooperatives change lives, and that extends to the opportunities they give through youth programs. Just how life-changing can these experiences with cooperatives be?

In my sophomore year of high school, Dee from Southern Pioneer Electric Cooperative showed up at my school. All my classmates and I gathered in the library to hear her talk about a “trip of a lifetime.” At the time, I did not believe her but filled out my application for the sake of my resume. The interview came and went. I felt good about my performance even though I was shy and lacked confidence. One day later, a guy standing six-foot, my school counselor, and my parents were all standing at my classroom door. I thought I was in trouble until I read the sign, “Southern Pioneer Electric is sending you to Steamboat Springs, CO.” I received congratulations, hugs, and gifts, but I wasn’t sure why. This was simply a trip – an all-expenses paid trip to Colorado.

The build-up to camp wasn’t much different from any other trip I had taken with my family. I had no clue how it would affect my future. It was the beginning of many opportunities in the cooperative world, which was still foreign to me. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to be a part of it. Camp not only enlightened my mind on the cooperative difference but also the difference in believing in myself. I learned how to become a leader. My first experience with co-ops made me a leader.

Seeing what the leadership camp did for me, students at my school significantly increased their interest in these trips. One year later, Alfalfa Electric Co-op and Southern Pioneer decided to send students to Youth Tour in Washington, D.C. Weeks after submitting my essay to Alfalfa Electric, I heard the English door open. It was Robyn Turney from Alfalfa Electric Cooperative and my parents. I won again! I was heading to Washington, D.C.! The anticipation for this experience was much greater than the previous one.

After registration in Topeka, it was time for the Youth Leadership Council (YLC) interview. Robyn had encouraged me to apply for the YLC position. The YLC delegate won the opportunity to go on two more trips. The first one was back to D.C. for training. The second trip was to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s annual meeting, where YLC members represent their respective states and cooperatives.

Results for YLC weren’t solely decided by the interviews, however. The forty-one other delegates on the trip would vote on the top three applicants. So, I had a little time to make my impressions. I started learning everyone’s name and getting to know their stories to build my network – something the Cooperative Leadership Camp had taught me. The rest of the trip was a whirlwind of sites, history, and food that this small-town boy could have never imagined. I left D.C. as the 2020 Kansas YLC delegate.

A few weeks later, I returned to D.C. and met other YLC delegates from other states. This trip enhanced my knowledge of cooperatives and how to advocate for them. While in D.C., I learned more about cooperatives from Adam Schwartz, the “Co-op Man.” I discovered that co-ops aren’t just electric – there are farming, housing, food, and many other types. I gained a great deal of knowledge and met other delegates that soon became my co-op family. We all bonded over each other’s stories and how we were all leaders in our unique ways. The impact of cooperative youth programs on me can’t be put into words. Not only can I talk about cooperatives for hours on end, but I can lead peers through tough times using my acquired leadership skills.

The last experience I want to share is the most recent and slightly different from the rest. Instead of learning about leadership and the cooperative difference, I was teaching and empowering others at the Cooperative Youth Leadership Camp in Steamboat Springs, CO, where my journey began. Every year at the end of this camp, the campers select six ambassadors to come back and help lead the following year’s camp. In 2019, campers selected six ambassadors for the next year, but the camp was canceled until this year. Only three ambassadors were available, so three of us were from years before 2019. I was honored to lead the new campers as an ambassador. At the beginning of the week, I wasn’t sure if the camp would affect people as it did me. I watched the campers show up as strangers and leave as a strong family. I guess co-ops are just that amazing because I saw kids like me emerge from their shells and become leaders. Even the confident kids learned essential skills for listening to others and for encouraging others to voice their ideas. It was rewarding to see the co-op principles work their magic. It displayed just how valuable the trips and experiences can be for all types of students.

As you can see, I am not the only miracle of cooperative powers. I am just one of many who were shown the co-op way. I stuck around because the grass was the greenest with cooperatives. Cooperatives have become such a part of me that I’m pursuing a double degree in electrical engineering and computer science at Wichita State University. I hope that I will not only intern at a cooperative but will work at one someday until I’m old and gray.

The co-op experiences are the driving force that keeps youth involved in the rural areas and keeps us returning for years. Thank you, Alfalfa Electric Cooperative and Southern Pioneer Electric Cooperative, for making me the person I am today. Thank you for investing in the youthful leaders of tomorrow.