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BridgeUSA Volunteers Give Their All at 2022 New York City Marathon

By Amanda Bintz
Outreach and Engagement Coordinator, ECFMG

“Keep the cups stacked three levels high, and fill them a third of the way,” the volunteer coordinator told us as she handed us bright green ponchos branded with the TCS New York City Marathon logo and featuring the Statue of Liberty.

We had just arrived for our volunteer shift at Mile 18 after our trip from Philadelphia to New York. The three of us — my ECFMG colleagues Katie Powell, Christine Shiffer, and me — stood at the intersection of 1st Avenue and E 97th Street on an unseasonably balmy first Sunday in November. We were ready to begin our volunteer experience at the New York City Marathon, the largest marathon in the world by participants.

The bright green ponchos we were given to wear as we handed out Gatorade.

The first runners had started the race at 8 a.m.; it was now 12 p.m. and 72 degrees out. While we were getting oriented at our station, we saw the news that the winners for the men’s and women’s professional divisions had already been declared: Evans Chebet from Kenya, who ran the race in 2 hours, 8 minutes, and 41 seconds; and Sharon Lokedi, from Arizona, who finished in 2 hours, 23 minutes, and 23 seconds. Still, that was only two finishers. There were still 47,744 people running who would finish the marathon later that day.

Mile 18 was being manned by volunteers associated with BridgeUSA, a J-1 visa exchange program within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State (DOS). Katie, Christine, and I were there representing ECFMG, a member of Intealth. ECFMG serves as the sole visa sponsor of J-1 physicians in clinical training programs. For the seventh year in a row, BridgeUSA provided the most volunteers of any organization to the New York City Marathon. There was a significant increase in the number of volunteers provided by BridgeUSA for the 2022 race as compared to the 2021 race, according to Kristin duBois, the DOS’s public affairs specialist.

“Last year, BridgeUSA provided 500 volunteers from 140 countries,” Kristin said. “This year, there were more than 700 volunteers.”

Just as it was for me, it was Kristin’s first year volunteering at the marathon. In her opinion, BridgeUSA provides the most volunteers to the New York City Marathon each year because the program exemplifies “the American value of volunteerism.”

Volunteers, runners, and spectators came from all over for the New York City Marathon.

“BridgeUSA is a cultural exchange program, and giving your time, talent, and/or treasure is so deeply ingrained in our culture in the U.S.,” Kristin said. “It increases mutual understanding between Americans and people of other countries. It allows our exchange visitors to almost literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. They got to see the best of humanity in one of the greatest cities in the world. And not only were they building connections with Americans, but they were connecting with other exchange visitors from all over the world.”

Ifediba Adoulphous Nwachukwu, a PGY-3 from Nigeria training in Internal Medicine, is one example of a J-1 physician volunteer who made personal connections at the marathon.

“The experience provided an opportunity to bond with other J-1 physicians with a passion for sports,” Dr. Nwachukwu said. “We exchanged ideas and planned to be participants in the race one day.”

Dr. Nwachukwu is a former athlete and lifelong sports fan. He relished the opportunity to be at a major sporting event like the New York City Marathon, especially because of the diversity of its participants.

“New York City has always been a multi-cultural city with people from many backgrounds, and the race highlighted even more the sheer heterogeneity of its residents,” Dr. Nwachukwu said. “People with varied backgrounds, different races, and cultures, were all brought together by the love for the game.”

Dr. Lopez grabbing handfuls of Gatorade cups to hand out to thirsty runners.

Maria Lopez, another J-1 physician who was volunteering that day, also remarked on the inclusivity of the event. Dr. Lopez is a PGY-4 from Ecuador, training in Pediatric Hematology and Oncology.

“I noticed the amount of runners coming from all over the world, representing their home countries, wearing proudly their flags and national shirts, and also seeing people from different ages giving their best to finish it,” Dr. Lopez said. “I could see how inclusive New York City and the United States are, and all the effort they put to make everyone feel included.”

According to New York Road Runners, the non-profit organization that runs the New York City Marathon, 2022’s iteration of the race saw participants from 131 different countries. The oldest runner was 88 (Alan Patricof from New York) and the youngest was 18 (Irina Kulesha from New Jersey).

Christine, Director of Regulatory Services for ECFMG, noted that the diversity of the day was not exclusive to those running the race.

“It was clear that the people running in the marathon came from all over the world, and this was mirrored in the volunteers at our fluid station,” Christine said. “There were J-1 exchange visitors from all over the world as well helping out. It was heartwarming to see, and to speak with them and hear about their experiences in the United States. I know they were excited to also see fellow citizens from their country competing.”

According to Kristin, for a good number of the J-1 and J-2 volunteers, the experience of volunteering at the New York City Marathon was not the only first they were experiencing that day: they were also visiting the most populous city in the United States for the first time.

Kristin chats with Dr. Ismaiel at the Mile 18 fluid station.

“I was so impressed with our volunteers,” Kristin said. “For many of them, this was their first trip to New York City and their excitement was infectious. I loved hearing them cheering in their native languages to runners who were from their home countries.”

J-1 physician Ahmed Ismaiel, a PGY-3 from Egypt training in Pediatrics, signed up to volunteer with BridgeUSA that day partly because of his athletic background. He is a long-distance runner and hopes to participate in the marathon next year.

“I highly appreciate long-distance running for both physical activity, recreation, and also a way to raise awareness about specific medical conditions,” Dr. Ismaiel said. “The New York City marathon was a huge opportunity to do that on a large scale, and I wanted to be part of that.”

Christine handing out cups of Gatorade to the runners.
Me grabbing more Gatorade to hand out to the runners.

When I got my opportunity to hand out cups of Gatorade to the runners, I was struck by how polite they were in the midst of such an assuredly painful feat of endurance. They had already run an incredible 18 miles by the time they reached our station; I did not expect them to say anything when I handed them a cup or two of lukewarm Gatorade, but more often than not they made eye contact, smiled, and said thank you. Many even thanked us for volunteering.

“What stood out to me was the sheer humanity of the event,” Kristin said. “Here were people running to achieve the physical goal of finishing a 26.2 mile race, and they were so grateful for a cup of water and a kind word of encouragement. The volunteers were equally motivated to hand out drinks and sweep up used cups so the runners wouldn’t slip and fall. The runners were so inspiring but so were the efforts of the volunteers. It truly was a beautiful expression of humanity.”

The day of the 2022 New York City Marathon—Sunday, November 6—was also the end of Daylight Savings Time. In New York City, the sun set at 4:47 p.m. Even as the light of the day faded, runners kept coming.

The sun beginning to set as runners continue past Mile 18.

At 5:30 p.m., when our volunteer shift ended, we collapsed and stacked the tables and received our official 2022 New York City Marathon Volunteer Swag: a gray pom-pom beanie and a blue enamel pin.

Tired and sticky with Gatorade, we began the trek home back to Philadelphia, which is about 91 miles away: the length of 3 and a half New York City Marathons. Volunteering at the New York City Marathon was unlike anything I’ve experienced before, and something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.