In the Guatemalan village of Peña Roja, the friendliest people Nathan Clayton could imagine greeted him with grateful smiles every morning.
Clayton was one of 14 lineworkers selected from Indiana electric cooperatives to continue Project Indiana’s mission to bring electricity to developing remote areas of Guatemala.
For 4 years, Clayton has been a journeyman lineman at Clark County REMC, servicing members’ homes throughout Clark, Floyd, Jefferson, Scott and Washington counties. Clayton applied to be a part of Project Indiana’s fifth trip to Guatemala after hearing from 2 of his coworkers how humbling their experience was.
“I have 4 kids of my own, so going to Guatemala to see how these families work and live — I felt like it could change and affect my life,” Clayton said.
Clayton had never traveled outside of the country before his Project Indiana trip. While he was excited, he also worried about the elevation — 11,000 feet above sea level — that he and the other lineworkers would endure. To prepare himself for the strenuous working conditions, he began taking walks, running and drinking more water before his trip.
In late April, after a 3-hour flight to Houston, a 1 ½ layover and another 3-hour flight to Guatemala City, the Project Indiana team arrived in Peña Roja, where they spent 2 weeks bringing light and electricity to 26 homes for the first time.
Clayton and his fellow lineworkers took turns climbing to build the 30- to 35-foot utility poles, offering to carry each other’s 50-pound bags of tools and climbing gear. Even though they struggled to breathe in the high elevation during their 10- to 12-hour workdays, Clayton said his group’s morale never wavered.
“The locals were all standing by to do whatever to help us, so that was awesome,” Clayton said. “Everyone worked as a team to finish this project.”
Each evening, the villagers boiled water over a fire pit and hauled it up the mountainside by mule, Clayton said, so the lineworkers could rinse off at the end of their workday with a hot shower.
Once the Project Indiana team and locals finished installing the utility poles, attaching wires to them and installing outlets in each home, Clayton recognized it was a life-altering moment for the villagers. He witnessed one villager’s reaction toward seeing an LED bulb light up their home and another’s excitement about being able to now own a blender and refrigerator.
“We didn’t have a translator with us at the time, but you could just tell on their face — when they flipped the switch and saw light come on without a generator running — how grateful and happy they were,” Clayton said.
At the end of the trip, a group from the Project Indiana team, including Clayton, went shopping in Cuilco, a nearby community. There, they bought sandals, coloring books, crayons, soccer balls and sweets to give to the children of Peña Roja, who were always asking Clayton for candy, he said. Clayton said the coloring books were a hit, and he noticed the children drawing in them right away, while all the lineworkers and locals celebrated their completed project with a night of fireworks and piñatas.
The Project Indiana team also donated their own money to a mother in Peña Roja who had children with cleft lips so she could travel to Guatemala City for her kids to receive medical care.
“I came home and thought about her traveling to Guatemala City and how it’s going to change her children’s lives,” Clayton said. “Walking in their home, seeing how they have dirt floors, one bed, one light, one outlet ... I don’t think I’ll take things for granted anymore. My kids shouldn’t either.”
During the Project Indiana trip, Clayton said he came out of his shell, as he learned how to collaborate with “a great group of guys” he had never met before from different cooperatives.
When the lineworkers arrived back at the Indianapolis International Airport, their families surprised them with balloons and banners, and Clayton’s wife, children and mother greeted him with big hugs and smiles.
Since returning home, Clayton said he has become more of a leader. He has started stepping up and volunteering for projects he wouldn’t have before, such as giving a 50-slide presentation for his REMC coworkers about his memorable experience in Guatemala.
Project Indiana’s next trip to Guatemala is planned for 2025. Visit the Project Indiana website to learn more.
- Nicole Thomas