S.C. students form their own cooperative during a memorable week in Washington, D.C.
WASHINGTON YOUTH TOUR is an annual, week-long event during which 1,500 rising high school seniors from electric cooperatives across the United States convene in Washington, D.C., to learn more about government, electric cooperatives and leadership. Coordinated by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina (ECSC), local electric cooperatives select outstanding high school students to represent their service area as well as the entire state of South Carolina.
South Carolina cooperatives sent 48 students to Washington this summer, where they met with members of the state’s congressional delegation and toured the capital’s museums and monuments. This year’s trip also provided an opportunity for students to learn more about the cooperative business model by forming the Soda Pop Co‑op.
Tourist attractions take a toll on the wallet, especially when you’re a high school student on a shoestring budget. A quick glance at the price list of a street vendor’s cart can be enough to instill a deep sense of sticker shock.
“Five bucks for bottled water! Is that for real?” asked an incredulous Grace Westbury, a rising senior at Holly Hill High School and one of 48 students who represented South Carolina at this year’s Washington Youth Tour. “I can’t believe people pay that,” she said, shaking her head as she stood in front of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
When it came to refreshments on the five-day trip, Grace and the rest of the South Carolina contingent didn’t pay “tourist” prices. Instead, the group formed the South Carolina Soda Pop Co-op to control costs and provide a service they all wanted.
“We weren’t sure how it was going to go because we had never done this before,” said Van O’Cain, director of South Carolina’s Youth Tour. “But we thought this was the perfect opportunity to give the group some real-life experience with how a cooperative actually works.”
Toward the end of their first afternoon in D.C., O’Cain laid out the parameters of the program and what it would entail: election of a five-member board of directors, the hiring of a manager and assistant manager to handle business operations and the collection of a $1 membership fee from anyone who wished to join the Soda Pop Co-op.
Blake Ward, representing Black River Electric Cooperative, and Chase Toler, representing Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative, prepare to open up the Soda Pop Co-op for business.
“One of the seven cooperative principles is open membership,” O’Cain said. “We didn’t force anyone to join, but all of them did; even our chaperones.”
Because demand to join the board of directors was so great, five random names were drawn from a hat.
Scott Martin, a special education teacher at Seneca High School and a chaperone on the trip, volunteered to help oversee the new enterprise. His first task: convene a hotel-room meeting of the Soda Pop Co-op board to interview candidates who wanted to manage the cooperative.
“Impressive,” Martin said of that meeting. “We gave them two minutes to tell the board why they should manage the business, and you could really feel the enthusiasm. I’m telling you, they were into it.”
Chase Toler, a student at Dutch Fork High School, was elected manager. Blake Ward of Sumter High School was brought on as the assistant. For their efforts, Toler agreed to be paid $10 a day. Ward’s salary was set at $5.
On the evening of the trip’s first day, the tour bus pulled up to a local supermarket and the managers began using membership fees to buy soda and water at prices much lower than the students would find in the hotel or area tourist attractions. The board had given the managers latitude to select the prices cooperative members would pay. They settled on 50 cents for bottled water, $1 for each soda.
See photos from the 2012 Youth Tour.
View the 2012 Youth Tour video.
For information on applying for the 2013 Youth Tour, contact your local electric cooperative.
Teachers interested in serving as chaperones on the 2013 Washington Youth Tour should contact South Carolina Youth Tour Director Van O’Cain at (803) 739-3048, email@example.com.
The allocation of resources was “a little trickier than I expected,” said Toler, who was responsible for purchasing the right mix of water, regular soda and diet soda.
Ward discovered that product distribution—serving up cold refreshments for a thirsty mob of members at each stop of the tour—was “kind of chaotic,” but after a day and a half, with the initial kinks worked out, the managers were ready to reinvest the proceeds and go on armed with more money and more information from their members.
“The membership advised us they’d like to have snacks, so we added chips to the mix at 50 cents a bag,” Toler said.
“Each night we’d regroup at the hotel and the guys would tabulate the day’s sales,” Martin said. “By the last day of the trip when we sold out of drinks, we knew we’d done well.”
On the final night of Youth Tour, the South Carolina group gathered for a farewell pizza party. Dissolving the Soda Pop Co-op and disbursing the profit (capital credits) was the first order of business. After paying salaries to managers and a small bonus to the board, the cooperative netted more than $220. Toler stood up and proudly told the group, “The co-op has been profitable and all of you are basically getting $4 back.” “I’d say it was a big success,” O’Cain said. “The students saved a bunch of money on something they all needed, and it was an easy, instructive way to show them how cooperatives work in the business world every single day; including their local electric cooperative back home.”
The 2012 Washington Youth Tour group from S.C. meets with Senators Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint at the U.S. Capitol.