IBEW volunteers led by the Kitchener, Ontario, Local 804 retirees’ club spent 10 days at a Guatemalan orphanage, where retired and active journeymen and apprentices upgraded the home’s electrical systems while spouses aided staff. Above, Wendy Whittaker and Kathy Benninger help children get ready to water plants.

Hop on a cruise ship or fly to a resort, and you won't find anyone having a better time than the Canadian electricians who each paid $2,800 to spend 10 days working their hearts out at a Guatemalan orphanage.

IBEW Canada volunteers outside a Guatemalan orphanage, a trip led by the Local 804 retirees’ club. Volunteers, who included retirees, spouses, members and apprentices, paid their own way for 10 days of work upgrading the home’s electrical systems. Making the trip were Jerry and Terry Wilson, Neil and Wendy Whittaker, Joe and Kathy Benniger, Eric Hunter, Zobeyda Lopez, Jim McInnis, Larry Nuttall, Jim Speers, Ken Speers, Virginia Pohler (London, Ontario, Local 120), Kyran Godreau, Mikayla Franklin and Brady Dickie (apprentice millwright).
Neil Whittaker and Jim McInnis string triplex cable between new power poles on the hilly site.  

They strung heavy triplex cable across the hilly site, overhauled the electrical systems at a special-needs dormitory and an offsite community center, and made critical repairs across the main compound, where smiling little faces looked on with awe.

"They all have a sad story, but they're the happiest children you'll ever meet," said Jerry Wilson, president of the Kitchener, Ontario, Local 804 Retirees' Club, whose members and spouses made up the lion's share of the 16 travelers, along with a journeywoman, two IBEW apprentices and an apprentice millwright.

They arrived with 23 stuffed hockey bags, filled by the generosity of IBEW members and their larger community: piles of clothes, shoes, bedsheets, towels, blankets, toothbrushes and other essentials, along with a sleigh's worth of toys and board games that made for laughter-filled game nights with youngsters and staff.

Warmth and gratitude flowed in every direction throughout their stay, while Google Translate helped everyone get to know each other.

"We forged the deepest connections with everybody that we came in contact with, and you can't put a price tag on that," said Wilson's wife, Terry.

For the Wilsons and Wendy and Neil Whittaker — who served in the taxing role of foreman on a project with scarce materials and no blueprints — it was a return trip.

Four years ago, after learning from Friends of the Orphans Canada about the home's dire needs, nine electricians tackled a massive first round of rewiring and repairs. On both trips, spouses assisted teachers and staff, embracing playtime, reading, meals and crafts with the children.

The 2019 group came home so joyful, energized and eager for an encore that apprentice Mikayla Franklin was determined to join them next time — a journey they'd have made sooner if not for the pandemic.

Pairing with journeywoman Virginia Pohler, a member of neighboring London, Ontario, Local 120, Franklin's chief duty was at a center for children with disabilities.

"I didn't know what I was getting into until I was there," she said, describing "exposed wires in bathrooms, extension cords sketchily threaded together," and other shock and fire hazards.

Eliminating them brought instant gratification.

"It was so cool to be able to help them and see the immediate difference it made," Franklin said. "All these kids and even adults were walking by something so dangerous and not knowing it's so dangerous. And we got the opportunity to fix it so that nobody gets hurt."

Outside, their IBEW brothers navigated steep terrain — a 268-step stairway runs between the visitors center and church — to connect seven buildings with triplex cable. Thankfully, Whittaker said, the poles were already installed. Even so, it was daunting.

"All the work was done on ladders," he said. "In Canada, we'd be using bucket trucks."

Franklin was struck by the many contrasts to their highly regulated jobs at home, noting how much she learned from Pohler, an electrical inspector.

"It gave me perspective on how good we have it and why we have certain rules," said Franklin, now a journeywoman. "I think every apprentice could benefit from this kind of experience. It really opens your eyes to the world."

It was life-changing for the children, too, especially the girls, as Terry Wilson and Wendy Whittaker observed. While the 2019 volunteers were all men, this time the skills of two IBEW sisters were on display.

"The young girls were astounded to see Mikayla and Virginia wearing tool pouches, dressed in the garb of a trades worker," Wilson said. "It was something beyond their wildest imaginations that an occupation like that could be available to a female — that they could grow up to be more than a weaver or cook or other traditional roles for Latin American women.”