The TCS New York City Marathon is the biggest one-day sporting event in the world, attracting over 51,000 runners from more than 125 countries from around the world. So naturally, the largest group of volunteers are international as well. This year more than 1,400 students, au pairs, and interns on the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program volunteered on race day, making them the largest and most diverse group of volunteers at the marathon for the third year in a row.
A Natural Fit
The TCS New York City Marathon has long been an international spectacle, and race organizers say that having an international volunteer base aligns with the mission of the marathon. “Our runners come from over 135 countries,” said Marcia Tyler, Director of Event Staffing and Volunteer Operations at the New York Road Runners. “You see the J-1 volunteers and what they bring. It’s just so much a natural fit.”
The J-1 participants bring a unique element to the cheering sections at fluid stations by showing support for runners around the world. Not only are runners thankful for the refreshment, they appreciate seeing a piece of home, whether it be their flag or cheers in their local language. As Thabiso Tjatjie, a J-1 participant from South Africa, said: “I saw South African runners, and I screamed, ‘Wooo! South Africa!’ It was very cool.”
These moments proved to the volunteers that what they were doing was more than holding cups of water. “You feel needed,” said Elisa Brunner, an au pair from Germany. “You are just one person, but with a group you can change something. Even though you are one person of 10,000, you can change something.”
Beyond those running, American volunteers benefit from interacting with the international J-1 volunteers. “They bring different perspectives, different cultural ideas, ideologies, philosophies, and they share them with their fellow volunteers,” said Mike Schnall, Vice President of Community Engagement Initiatives for the New York Road Runners. “It’s wonderful because we get to learn about them and where they come from.”
Helping Others to Run: Community Engagement and Volunteerism
The TCS New York City Marathon is an event that leans on community engagement and volunteerism. Over 10,000 people volunteer for the marathon — setting up, handing out refreshments, cleaning, and most of all: cheering on the runners. Through volunteering, J-1 participants experience that culture.
“People say Americans are individualistic. It’s not true in a sense,” said J-1 participant Vuyani Maduna from South Africa. “Even though they are individuals, they still believe in community. Volunteerism brings a sense of community. You are responsible for your neighbor and your neighbor is responsible for you.”
Running for a Cause
On the course, J-1 participants see an American culture of philanthropy up-close. In fact, some J-1 participants had the opportunity to run in the race themselves, raising funds for people in need. One of those participants was Laura Helbig from Germany, an au pair through the J-1 program, who ran the marathon alongside her host mom, Candice Nielsen.
Laura and Candice ran to raise funds for Kids First Foundation, and at the start of the race had raised over $1,000. Laura said raising funds like this in Germany is possible, “but it’s uncommon,” she said. “I like having that spirit here: that people help out. There’s strong community, there’s volunteerism, and donating.”
Laura and Candice initially bonded over their love of sports and running during the interview process for Laura to join the family as an au pair. Candice, who has run marathons before, encouraged Laura to use this opportunity to run her first marathon, to push herself and support a good cause.
Running is Unifying
As flags plastered to runners’ uniforms were zooming by during the race, flag garlands fluttered above the fluid stations where J-1 participants cheered on runners. The energy, camaraderie, and sense of unity were undeniable.
“Running unites the world,” says Schnall, “Whether you’re in the race or you’re a spectator, we’re all celebrating the human spirit, human accomplishment. The J-1s make that possible. They help [runners] get through the 26.2 miles. They really are energizing and provide that extra push to get past the finish line in Central Park.”
Volunteers had similar sentiments, describing the day as “unforgettable” and “once-in-a-lifetime.” Lorenzo Gomez, J-1 participant from Colombia, said: “It’s the best volunteer experience I’ve had since I came to the United States.” We expect that when these J-1 participants return home, they will bring this experience with them, along with a renewed enthusiasm for volunteerism.
About the Author: Lauren Aitken is a social media manager in the Public Affairs and Strategic Communications Office of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.