Florida U.S. House Representatives Neal Dunn, left, and Matt Gaetz high-five Florida students on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Kaitlynn Culpepper
The nation’s history comes alive for Florida high school students on Youth Tour
Andrew-Paul “AP” Griffis reaches down and grips the hand of the wheelchair-bound veteran.
“Thank you for your service,” the athletic 16-year-old says, locking eyes with the frail Honor Flight veteran from Philadelphia.
Both were visiting the World War II Memorial on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon in June.
AP and other Florida high school students greet veteran after veteran with genuine gratitude and sincerity—young thanking old with a few meaningful words and a handshake.
“I was reminded how much they gave and how much we have to be thankful for,” says AP, who was in the nation’s capital as a representative of Clay Electric Cooperative. “Military is more than putting on a uniform. It’s saying you will give up everything for your family and country.”
That was the tone-setting first day of a weeklong adventure in Washington, D.C., for Florida’s Rural Electric Youth Tour delegation, which joined a record-setting 1,800 students from around the country for sightseeing, immersion in history and a lesson in the cooperative business model.
The patriotic scene at the World War II Memorial lasted nearly an hour, as Florida students who were apprehensive about traveling with people they did not know immediately bonded with each other while talking with the veterans. Students even came together to learn and dance the Charleston. The veterans smiled with delight as their past came to life through the young people.
“Without them we would not be here today,” Coleman Tadrowski of Clay Electric Cooperative says. “I have a newfound appreciation for just how much a simple thank you can mean to a veteran.”
A Busy Week of Sightseeing
Started 53 years ago, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s Youth Tour program exposes teenagers from rural areas to a world they often have only read about in textbooks and challenges them to stretch outside their comfort zones.
Participating electric cooperatives select students who, typically, have just completed their junior year of high school for the all-expense-paid, awe-inspiring, life-changing trip of a lifetime.
Each state develops its own itinerary, but students come together for Youth Day and a Potomac River cruise, exchanging state pins and keepsakes with fellow delegates and making lifelong friends with people who were strangers the day before.
Students see the roots of American history in visits to Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Marine Corps Iwo Jima War Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.
They visit the National Archives, Mount Vernon, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Washington National Cathedral and the Smithsonian museums.
They tour the U.S. Capitol and meet with representatives and senators, witness the U.S. Marine Corps Sunset Parade, and learn about electric cooperatives and grassroots advocacy.
While students cover a lot of ground, the trip is about more than sightseeing and patriotism. It is about building relationships, gaining historical perspective and opening students up to a future many had never before considered.
“Hands down, this has been the best week of my life,” says Melanie Clark of Talquin Electric. “I have experienced so many fun things and have met incredible people I am lucky to call my family now.”
“This trip surrounded me with individuals who are leaders in their communities and work hard to love others,” adds Abby Hamm of Peace River Electric Cooperative. “The people I was with pushed me to be a better version of myself.”
Experiencing the Holocaust Horror
At the Holocaust Memorial Museum, visitors receive identification cards of real people who experienced that gruesome period of history—men, women and children from all regions of the world.
As they move through history from one floor to the next, visitors learn more about the person whose identity they have assumed. Some live. Others die.
“Not only did I hear about her death and the bad ways she was treated, I learned she was a teacher, a mother and a wife,” Whitney Hodge of Central Florida Electric Cooperative says of the woman on her card. “Although her story is different than everyone that suffered, knowing these personal facts moved me in a way a textbook never could have.”
Sofia Cooley of West Florida Electric Cooperative says in history class “it was just pictures and stories. When I went into the museum and saw the artifacts, and was able to connect faces to the stories I read, it took on a new meaning.”
Timmy Locklin of Escambia River Electric Cooperative read “The Diary of a Young Girl” in ninth grade, “but that single book cannot do justice to the thousands of victims of the genocide,” he says.
“In history class, they do not go in depth about the gruesome tragedies of the Holocaust, but in the museum nothing was sugar-coated,” explains Savanah Parker of Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative. “The museum reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: ‘If you do not learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it.’ That is why it is important to have museums like this one.”
Savannah Gardner, also of Gulf Coast Electric, says she was emotional walking through the museum.
“I couldn’t deny that humans could ever be that evil anymore,” she says. “This museum is a statement to the world, to every human being. It will forever be impressed on my heart.”
AP says he will never forget the wall of pictures.
“It was men, women, boys and girls who didn’t survive,” he says. “They all looked happy, young and vibrant—their lives cut short by this tragedy. We can never allow them to be forgotten.”
Drew Willis of West Florida Electric saw parallels between the Holocaust and African-American museums in how they pay tribute to victims and offer insights into the harsh realities of life.
“Throughout our years in school, we are taught about the events of the Holocaust, slavery and segregation, and the challenges these groups of people faced, but I never really understood just how much pain and devastation the people who lived during these events went through until I toured the museums and saw up close and personal just what the lives of these individuals were like,” Drew says.
Memorials Inspire Gratitude
Seeing the names of soldiers on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall really hit home for Sofia, who has a brother serving in the military. Another brother was shot, but recovered, while deployed to Afghanistan.
“That awful loss could have happened to us,” she says. “Seeing all of the men and women who gave their lives for America gave me an even greater sense of appreciation.”
Two of Timmy’s great-grandparents served in the war. One piloted a plane in the Pacific. The other was a captain in the U.S. Army.
“Uncommon valor was a common virtue,” he says, reciting words on the Iwo Jima Memorial. “This quote really reflects all service branches during that war, including both my great-grandparents.”
AP was overwhelmed by graves as far as the eye could see at Arlington National Cemetery.
“It reminded me of our mortality,” he says, “but also of the immortality of the ideals these men fought to protect: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Savannah says she tried to count the number of graves in a single row, but could not keep track because there were so many.
“It made me realize that the freedom we now enjoy and most often take for granted was not free of charge,” she says. “Hundreds of thousands of people made the ultimate sacrifice so that we may be free today. My freedom is priceless.”
Abby also was reminded that freedom is not free.
“Never in all of history has freedom been attained without sacrifice,” she says.
For Timmy, “knowing each one of those marble headstones is someone who paid the ultimate price for our freedom gives you a strong sense of gratitude.”
“It puts in perspective what it means to be an American, and how we should always stop and thank someone who served or is serving,” adds Jackson Flowers of Escambia River Electric.
Jacob Kitchen of Chelco says he has “a heightened respect for all those who have served and a reality of how much they truly sacrificed. I have a new realization of how real war is, and how much soldiers need our patriotic support.”
Zach Karpinski says seeing Arlington National Cemetery gave him a new respect for the country.
“My thoughts on pride and patriotism have been greatly reinforced as I’ve learned what our nation is all about,” says the Talquin Electric representative.
Savannah notes it is important to remember that the names of the soldiers engraved on the walls of the memorials and into headstones were not just names, but human beings who “faced the adversary so that every American can be free today.”
“It is a debt that can never be repaid,” she says. “I’ll never forget the men who died who granted me my freedom. They are my heroes.”
A Lasting Impression
Abby, Marcy Rubio of Glades Electric Cooperative and Macie Porter of Chelco were just getting to know each other when they timidly approached an Honor Flight veteran on day one, unsure of what to ask.
“Where did you serve?” Abby asked.
The veteran seized the opportunity, captivating the trio with stories about his service, thoughts about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and an inspirational message that had a lasting effect.
“The conversation had me in tears,” says Marcy. “The veteran told my friends and me how a young Chinese woman designed the memorial. He went on to say we could be anything we wanted to be.
“When I witnessed the memorial for myself, I was left speechless. It is so simple, yet so chillingly beautiful. My favorite part of the memorial is how visitors, particularly veterans, can see their reflections.”
Seeing all of the names on the wall “gave me chills and took my breath away,” Macie says.
Abby says her love for her country grew as a result of all she saw and felt on the trip.
“The broken world we live in is filled with such turmoil and hatred that it is occasionally difficult for me to truly love the country I live in,” Abby admits. “I have always been patriotic, but on this trip, it was a relief to see justice in action and the unity that came after the tragic events in Alexandria.
“As I solemnly walked the streets of D.C., I found a re-energized sense of loyalty. This grew from the thankfulness I have toward those who have laid down their lives on my behalf. Some of their bodies are buried in Arlington and the memorials bear the names of those that paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“Our country is broken, but I love my country in spite of it. As I passed protesters demanding jobs and posters demanding equal rights, I was reassured that those who died did not pass in vain. I did not have to agree with the protestors to be thankful that I, too, have freedom of speech.”