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Fillmore County 4-H'ers go to the wall for service project

GENEVA — Fillmore County 4-H members who traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2018 for the Citizenship Washington Focus week have enhanced the Fillmore County Fairgrounds with an eye-catching service project.

Sadie Birky and Claire Kimbrough, of the Strang 4-Bar H Club, each created a wooden barn quilt that now adorns the 4-H Show Arena building.

The two quilts represent the organizations that serve the building. The green, white and black one, created by Kimbrough, is for the 4-H organization; and the blue, gray and gold one stands for FFA and was made by Birky.

The Citizenship Washington Focus week is billed as a life-changing week that empowers 4-H’ers to take their leadership skills to the next level for themselves and their communities.

The annual learning experience for teens age 14-19 has been held at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center for more than 50 years. It teaches youth the importance of civic and social responsibilities to become more engaged, proactive citizens and leaders; to exchange ideas, practice respect and form friendships with other 4-H youth from around the United States; and to live in a global economy by improving public speaking, problem-solving and professional skills.

Birky and Kimbrough, both 16, will be juniors in high school and have seven or eight years of 4-H experience.

Along with 4-H member Clint Oldehoeft of Exeter, the girls left Nebraska June 21, 2018, in anticipation of seeing how laws were made. They were gone for nine days.

They visited New York City and Philadelphia three days before their week in Washington began.

Both girls said they enjoyed seeing “The Lion King” on Broadway, the 9/11 Museum and the One World Observatory that included an elevator ride to the top that concluded with a 360-degree view of New York City.

Their days in Washington were packed — beginning at 7 a.m. and most ending at 10:30 p.m. They were a mixture of workshops, committee meetings, tours and special events to attend.

The girls said they had a great time and learned a great deal about the federal government.

“We learned what each branch of government does,” Birky said. “And we became aware of how hard the government branches have to work to turn a bill into a law.”

A special event planned for them was the opportunity to meet 3rd District U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and listen to him speak.

“We got to eat breakfast with Congressman Adrian Smith and we also got photos with him by the Capitol,” Kimbrough said.

New opportunities the 4-H’ers got to experience included the chance to do something life-changing, experience summer leadership, learn from 4-H role models, stay at the national home of 4-H, and join a legacy of 4-H citizenship.

A part of the Citizenship Washington Focus experience is doing a required service project due upon returning from the event.

The Fillmore County 4-H Council asked Birky and Kimbrough to paint the barn quilts for their service project, and the two agreed.

The boards, patterns and paint were given to the girls by the 4-H council. The girls had to enlarge the patterns and transfer them onto the 4-foot-square boards. Each organizational emblem was added and placed in the middle of each barn quilt before they were attached to the building.

“It took us two full days and one morning to finish up, as they were primed several times,” Birky said.

Kimbrough said it was good to do this particular community service project.

“Lots of people go to the fair, and it’s good to see new things, for they get everyone’s attention and excites them,” Kimbrough said.

The girls’ eyes sparkle yet today as they speak with much emotion about their CWF experience. They encourage anyone who has a chance to participate to do so, as they are still talking to friends they made from other states a year ago.

Birky said the contrast from small-town Nebraska to New York City was unbelievable. Washington also had a great impact on her.

“It opened my mind as to what the government does and to how it really works,” Birky said. “It was a hands-on experience I will never forget.”

While in Washington, the girls were impressed by the “Twilight Tattoo,” a re-enactment of how the U. S. came together.

Utilities officials discuss outage response

Even though most Hastings Utilities customers who lost power during the storm that occurred overnight June 20-21 were back on quickly, there is room for improvement in emergency response.

That was the message HU Manager Kevin Johnson shared during a post mortem update about the effects of that storm as part of the Hastings Utility Board meeting Thursday.

“I thought we did a really good job,” he said.

Johnson said while about 3,500 HU customers lost power, about 3,300 of those were back on “fairly quick.”

“Because we knew where to go and what feeders to hit when we got to the service lines,” he said.

Staff members assembled for a quick response.

“I feel like there’s always opportunity for us to look back in hindsight and see where can we get better,” Johnson said.

Hastings Utilities is still too paper-based when it comes to storm response, Johnson said.

He said HU director of operations Lee Vrooman, HU manager of customer accounts Brian Strom, HU director of marketing and energy supply Derek Zeisler, as well as Kevin Schawang, who is information technology director for the city of Hastings, are looking at automated systems that could provide customer portals.

“Not just automate for automation purposes, but to automate so we understand and we can show customers where they’re out, or if we’re aware they are out because I think that’s what they really want to know,” Johnson said. “I know they want their electricity back on. I do too. But if we can provide a little more opportunity to let people know they’re out and we have people responding I think it would reduce the phone calls.”

Past utility organizations that serviced the communities where Johnson worked provide similar services. For instance at the Omaha Public Power District customers could go online and see what areas were without power during an outage.

“We’re already talking about an opportunity to pinpoint even homes as an option,” he said.

Board member Shawn Hartmann agreed with Johnson’s assessment of the situation.

Providing information online about what areas of town are without power — and the HU response — would cut down on customer calls to Hastings Utilities.

“I think the automation is almost something that is a necessity moving forward in the day and age we’re at,” Hartmann said. “It’s a safety issue.”

Johnson said such a service for Hastings Utilities is long overdue and would be money well spent.

He hopes HU staff members eventually will have the opportunity to visit larger utility and energy companies to see what services are available.

“Not that we could afford to put in everything they do, but we should be able to scale it back,” he said.

HU customers to receive information about solar options

Hastings Utilities will soon play host to customer informational meetings about the city’s 6,000-panel 1.5 megawatt AC solar project.

Derek Zeisler, HU director of marketing and energy supply, told members of the Hastings Utility Board during their regular meeting Thursday the project is on schedule to go online in early September.

He said racking and panels for the project should go up next week.

“The rain is a nuisance, but hasn’t seemed to slow them down much, so we’re pushing forward with that,” he said.

The first phase of the solar project will include 6,012 panels within three arrays just west of Hastings Municipal Airport.

Pamphlets with information about pricing for participation in the project will be sent out with customer bills.

“We’re excited to get this out,” Zeisler said. “Now that we have the rates set we’ll have something we can work with the customers.”

A bill-forecasting tool should soon be available at

Aug. 12 has been identified as the first day for registration in the solar project.

In advance of that a customer meeting has been scheduled for 5 p.m. Aug. 8 in the Hastings Utilities board room at 1228 N. Denver Ave.

“It’ll give people a chance to come in, ask their questions and we’ll send them with the information,” Zeisler said. “We’ll have applications available for people to start reviewing, so they can start playing with it online or get the information they need for us to see how or if they want to sign up for it.”

He thanked Utility Board and Hastings City Council members for their support of the solar project to help it move forward.

“This was a project that came together really fast,” he said.

HU Manager Kevin Johnson recently visited Florida. While there he went to the offices of renewable energy company NextEra where he saw solar trees.

“They literally looked like trees that had five or six solar panels,” he said.

“I’m already thinking about talking to (Parks and Recreation Director) Jeff Hassenstab about expanding his tree program to include solar,” Johnson said, referring jokingly to the Parks and Recreation Department’s program offering trees to be planted on residential terraces in Hastings.

Zeisler said HU customers have contacted him, suggesting the city add solar panels and carports at city parking lots.

“There’s a lot of really good ideas out there,” he said. “Of course we went with the one we felt was the most economical at this time.”