Sierra Tel Brings Fiber, Fun and Holiday Cheer to Rural California

By Ashley Spinks, Communications Coordinator, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

December 13, 2018

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Oakhurst, Calif., and that’s largely due to the efforts of NTCA member Sierra Tel. Every year, the company provides a giant tree—this year a 30-foot-tall white fir complete with lights—for display in the center of town. On the first Saturday in December, Oakhurst residents gather to “flip the switch,” and the tree-lighting is followed by an opportunity for local students to visit with Santa.

This year's tree in the center of town; photo courtesy of Sierra Tel

Laura Norman, public relations supervisor at Sierra Tel, said this is the part of her job she’s proudest of—but not because of the exemplary decorating abilities of the Sierra Tel staff. During the Santa visit each year, every child who attends is given two books to take home, courtesy of the company. And the holiday spirit doesn’t end there; at a local children museum’s annual “Breakfast With Santa,” hundreds more books are handed out to participating children with Sierra Tel’s support.

“Going back decades, Sierra Tel has always donated a lot of books,” Norman said. “It’s our favorite way to stay in touch with the school-age children in our community. … We give out around 3,000 books a year.”

Norman said that Sierra Tel has made it a priority—in its budget and otherwise—to support education in the company’s service territory. Through a grant request program that Sierra Tel has set up, local schools can request books that they need for their students or for special events. Mariposa Elementary, a small school in nearby Mariposa, Calif., gives every student a wrapped gift before the holiday break, and this year they will receive books. “We provide the books so that everyone has something under the tree,” Norman explained. “Books … are for life, and they’re not a disposable thing.” 

Smaller trees, decorated by the students, represent each school in the district.

Sierra Tel, founded more than 120 years ago, has been “very, very involved with the schools” in its serving area throughout the company’s long history, according to Norman. “[Help] has come in any form that they need,” she said. “They know that they can start here.” 

The most recent manifestation of Sierra Tel’s commitment to education in its rural community is a $5,000 grant that was awarded to Oakhurst Community College Center (OCCC). The grant, which will support improvements to the school’s distance-learning program, was provided by the Foundation for Rural Service (FRS) and endorsed by Sierra Tel. 

This year’s grant winners are exemplars of the innovation, orientation toward public service and dedication to hard work that can be found throughout rural America,” said FRS Executive Director Jessica Golden. According to Norman, FRS’ impact is well-known throughout Oakhurst. “Our community is very aware of FRS because of the rural nature that we have,” she said.

“[Help] has come in any form that they need,” she said. “They know that they can start here.” 

The grant that Sierra Tel helped secure for OCC is part of a long-standing and successful partnership. In addition to providing fiber and security services to the campus, Sierra Tel also maintains a close working relationship with Darin Soukup, director of the college, who previously served as director of the Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce.

The FRS grant will provide necessary resources to bolster the college’s distance-learning program—programs that are essential in rural areas. Oakhurst Community College is a member of the State Center Community College District (SCCCD), and Norman said the next-nearest campus in that network is 50 miles away. “By using distance learning, we don’t have to have instructors come here [to Oakhurst],” she said. This means OCC can provide a much broader curriculum, by leveraging the staffs of nearby community colleges, than it would be able to by relying solely on its own small staff.

For more information about the FRS grant program, visit the foundation website.