A virtual experience of a lifetime

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Youth Tours

The risks of spreading COVID-19 caused summer cooperative programs like the Rural Electric Youth Tour to Washington D.C., and the Cooperative Youth Summit to Columbia to be canceled. However, that did not mean that the four local high school students sponsored by Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

In June, Neleah Clough, Greenville Technical Charter High School; Karlyn Esuary, Liberty High School; Page Holcombe, West-Oak High School; and Daniel Watson, Cyber Academy of South Carolina; participated in Virtual Youth Experience, a week-long web conference hosted by South Carolina’s electric cooperatives. The event allowed high school students selected by cooperatives from across the state to engage with leaders from the safety and comfort of their homes using computers and smartphones.

From June 19-26, several of our South Carolina’s highest elected officials—Governor Henry McMaster, U.S. Senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, and U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn—responded to questions about the pandemic, race relations and other topics important to the students. State Superintendent Molly Spearman described how their final years of high school might be different that the classes before them. Dr. Linda Bell, the state’s chief epidemiologist, answered questions about the disease and told them that their “new normal” should be wearing masks everywhere they go.

“I would say to any student, particularly students of color, living in communities where you may not have as many opportunities, you are just as smart as students in any other part of the state,” Spearman says. “If you take advantage of the opportunities you do have, your character and abilities will shine.”

Jim Sonefeld, drummer for Hootie and the Blowfish, met with the Virtual Youth Experience students to discuss mental health during the pandemic and his struggles with substance abuse. Rev. Charles Jackson, senior pastor at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, spoke to the students about the importance of developing community and positive race relations.

The students also had the opportunity to earn a $5,000 college scholarship by working in teams to create a podcast detailing how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted their lives.  The winner will be announced on Friday, July 31.  Click the following links to listen to their podcasts.

Page Holcombe
Daniel Watson
Neleah Clough
Karlyn Esuary

Neleah Clough shared of her virtual experience, “I am beyond grateful that I was able to participate in the Virtual Youth Experience, thank you so much for the opportunity! Throughout the week I was granted the opportunity to listen to and speak with a lot of influential figures, receive a crash course on the basics of storytelling and audio recording, and meet so many new friends from across the state! Getting the chance to hear from such a diverse group of people allowed for me to gain a greater understanding of how the recent events of 2020 are affecting people from across the state, and renewed in me a hope that we will all persevere through these troubling times together.”

Karlyn Esuary also shared her thoughts on the virtual tour, “Last week was so much fun. I loved being able to ask questions our speakers direct questions, which is usually a task reserved for journalists. I also was grouped with two other students from South Carolina and we’re working on a project together that has definitely challenged us.”