In singing a popular tune, 17-year-old Madeline Pena assured a crowd of more than 1,500 youth leaders from across the country that the stars at night are indeed big and bright “deep in the heart of Texas.”
But not all of Texas’ stars are in the sky.
Based on her abilities in public speaking and writing, her bubbly personality and caring demeanor, staff members with Texas Electric Cooperative and the National Rural Electric Co-op would likely include Pena among the brightest. During the cooperative-sponsored Youth Tour Government In Action leadership conference at which she led the aforementioned singing earlier this month, the recent Decatur High School graduate was also named the Texas representative to the NREC Youth Leadership Council.
Every year, electric cooperatives across the country sponsor one or two students to attend the Youth Tour based on submitted essays. Pena, who was one of two sponsored by the Wise County Electric Co-op, received an all-expenses paid trip to D.C. and a $1,000 scholarship.
Winners have the opportunity to apply for the Youth Leadership Council, which has only one representative from each state. Pena was one of 15 – out of a total of 122 Youth Tour attendants from Texas – who applied.
According to training and conference coordinator for TEC, Esther Dominguez, the council helps youth develop strong leadership, presentation and advocacy skills through conventions that cover topics such as the cooperative business model, grassroots advocacy and careers in public service.
“The local sponsor, Karen Culpepper encouraged me to apply,” Pena said. “She told me nobody from our co-op had ever gotten it, but she said it was worth a shot.”
So she did, and after a student-led devotional the third day of the council – during which Pena sang – Dominguez announced Pena as the Texas representative.
“I was shocked,” Pena said. “[Dominguez] explained about how they reviewed applications, and I was one of four finalists interviewed. I thought, ‘You interviewed me? I was never interviewed.’ But then it clicked.”
At the beginning of the tour, Dominguez asked Pena if she would befriend a shy participant and help her become acclimated.
“Madeline wasted no time in finding an extra chair and asking the shy participant to join their table,” Dominguez said. “That was the interview. We pick four finalists, and we don’t tell them ahead of time because we don’t want them to be pretending. But this year I had three chaperones start observing them and how they interacted with the group from the day they arrived.”
Pena also recalled being asked to corral a group after dinner in Old Town one night and to participate in the student-led devotional.
“Madeline stood out from the very beginning,” Dominguez said. “She interacted with everyone. With that personality and her experience in public speaking and good writing, she stood out as the top candidate right away. And usually it takes a while, and sometimes it’s hard to narrow it down to one, so that says a lot.
“She is definitely a very sharp and social young lady. I have no doubt she’ll be a great member.”
As a YLC delegate, Pena is assigned to write an essay bridging her experience in D.C. and how co-ops work.
“This trip truly changed the way I look at our country and myself as an American,” Pena said. “It’s one thing to read and take notes and sit through a lecture in U.S. History and government class. But to see what all you have learned and put into action is a completely different ball game. It makes you appreciate it so much more.
“There were days I would just sit in those classes impatiently waiting for it to be over as it dragged on. Now I wish I would’ve paid closer attention.”
She added that the tour also changed her perspective from consumer to advocate for rural co-ops
“We take advantage of flipping on a light switch and there being power,” she said. “We don’t think about all the legwork that went in to getting that light bulb turned on. This helped me grow an appreciation for it.”
The writers of the top five will present their speeches during a return trip to the nation’s capital in July for the YLC’s first meeting.
YLC representatives will also attend the NRECA national meeting in Nashville in February.
“I’m looking forward to July and February and what they have to offer,” Pena said. “This trip itself was an experience. It’s given me a lot of confidence. I don’t know what doors YLC will open, but I’m ready to go in head-first and to pursue it.
“I really want to pay my co-op back,” she continued. “I want to show them they made a good investment.”