Stewardship Coordinator Melinda Billings thrusts her hand into the air with a bunch of emerald weeds in her hand, fresh mounds of earth still attached to the base exposing wild spaghetti strand roots. “This is Crab Grass, Dyers Woad, and Mugwort,” her voice booms over the crowd. She holds the weeds up for the group to see and I raise my hand to shield my eyes from the bright rays of the sun to get a closer look.
It's Sunday morning and I've traveled from Washington, D.C. to join a J-Day beautification volunteer project in New York City. We’re there to remove invasive weeds and plant species from the brick-lined East River Promenade, where many New Yorkers come to cycle, run and enjoy the great outdoors. Armed with gardening gloves, pruning and digging tools, shrub rakes, and wheel barrows, our group was ready to banish these harmful weeds.
J-Day is a nationwide event that raises awareness about cultural exchange and diversity. It gives participants of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program (EVP) (also known as J-1s) the opportunity to give back to their communities and experience volunteerism in the United States. Everyone uses the same tagline: Eat. Play. Give.
J-Day was first piloted in the summer of 2014 by three State Department-designated sponsors -- Greenheart International, Cultural Exchange Network (CENET), and Spirit Cultural Exchange in partnership with the Alliance for International Exchange – and has spread like wildfire throughout the J-1 community. This year, there were 52 J-Day events across 20 states and the District of Columbia. These included food and shoe donations, a lifeguard Olympics competition, a school supply drive, environmental rehabilitation projects, and coastal clean-up activities.
Check out what some of the J-1 exchange visitors contributed and learned on J-Day:
“I volunteered because I wanted to give my time to someone who needed it most” - Kaori Saito, J-1 Trainee from Japan
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands; one for helping yourself, the other for helping others... Everyone should volunteer and change lives! It's a great experience for everyone and a fantastic feeling when you realize you can help someone and put a smile on their face!” – Lena Mueller, J-1 Au Pair from Germany
“My volunteering experience meant a lot to me, showing that I can contribute something and help out others for a cause that is greater than I am… I think it is important for others to participate in J-Day volunteer activities to help make a difference in our world.”- Deveney Whitley, J-1 Summer Work Travel participant from Jamaica
“I learned that even in America there are needy people. The best part of my volunteer experience was talking to the children and seeing their smiles when they opened their school backpacks that we filled with new school supplies. The thing that surprised me most about my volunteer experience was that Americans of all ages do volunteer work. This never happens in my country.” – Dana Ramirez, J-1 Summer Work and Travel participant from the Dominican Republic
“This was my first time volunteering in the United States… I was shocked to hear about the number of families at risk of hunger in the Bay Area, but the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank has been doing a great job. I’m glad my sponsor organized this event and gave me the opportunity to participate. It motivates me to keep doing community work here in the United States and once I’m back to my home country.” – Olga Krstic, J-1 Intern from Serbia
Doreen Kappa, a J-1 Au Pair from Germany (pictured above, right) had a blast donating shoes to the community and learning to line dance, Electric Slide and Salsa with them at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio.
“I decided to volunteer for J-day because I'm glad I can be part of cultural exchange during my Au Pair year and if in the same time I can do something good for other people, it's always a pleasure for me” - Julita Przybyl, J-1 Au Pair from Poland
“The best part of my volunteer experience was working in the group of volunteers I didn’t know with music playing in the background. We didn't know each other, but we worked as a group to help children we will never meet. And in the end we found out that we made enough food packages to feed 54 children for a whole year!” - Yi-Jung Lin, J-1 Summer Work and Travel participant from Taiwan
In Dickinson County, Iowa, J-1s participated in a picnic, games and food drive to raise $540 and one full box of canned food. They also learned how to make s’mores, which were so popular that the sponsor ran out of graham crackers and had to get more.
In Lake Ridge, Virginia, 197 J-1 Summer Work and Travel participants collected over 1,215 pounds of food for a local food bank and took part in the Lifeguard Olympics, a contest in which teams of J-1 lifeguards compete in friendly water games for fame and glory.
“J-Day was Amazing! These events allow us J-1s to meet each other, socialize and make new friends. And the best part is even though we’re having fun; we’re also helping people in need. We donated hundreds of pounds of food. I just donated two cans of food, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but together everyone’s contribution added up to a big amount of food for hundreds of people who need it.” - Richard Szabari, J-1 Summer Work and Travel participant from Slovakia
For more information about the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program (EVP), please visit j1visa.state.gov.
About the Author: Lynette Evans-Tiernan serves as a Communications Manager for the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program.