There are few American pastimes as important and pervasive as volunteerism. You can even say that it is built into the fabric of America, as it dates back to colonial times.
Today, nearly one in four Americans, an estimated 62.6 million people, give their time and talents to benefit their communities through service. Giving back is an integral part of U.S. culture, and thus, such opportunities are a mainstay in our exchange programs and across our work to expose international visitors to our country and way of life.
This past week, we hosted two special volunteer events in recognition of J Day, an annual nationwide celebration of the power of international exchange.
In both New York and Washington, D.C., our staff brought together more than 30 people representing 12 different countries to “eat, play, and give”—to share cultural diversity and American customs, to give back to their communities, and, of course, to have some fun while they were at it.
Keeping Our Parks Clean in New York City
I was fortunate to be part of our staff team that organized a successful coastal clean-up project together with the Riverside Park Conservancy in New York City.
International interns and trainees from eight different countries joined us, and together we prevented 20 full bags of trash from going into the Hudson River. We also tracked the types of trash found along the shoreline to help the park to enforce certain restrictions and better educate the public.
As part of the experience, we were all also fortunate to learn more about the historic park and the importance of preserving it from Marilyn Griffin-Ramos, a gardener at the Riverside Park Conservancy.
“The coastal cleanup project was a success. This is important because North Park is heavily trafficked by people from all over the city due to shoreline access. Its also the only place in Riverside Park where BBQ is permitted so a lot of trash and food items accumulate. This trash often finds its way stuck along the rocks or directly into the Hudson River.
“Cultural Vistas volunteers worked hard and diligently to the last minute in removing trash and even helping gather tools once the project was finished. The Riverside Park Conservancy appreciates their service.”
Talking to those who joined us on J Day, we learned that many of our exchange participants had varying levels of familiarity with volunteering.
“It was a unique experience to come clean-up the park,” shared Yujin Jiang from South Korea, a participant in our Korea WEST program. “I volunteer sometimes in South Korea. Because I am interested in education, I have only volunteered by teaching and tutoring other students. I learned today how important it is to take action in helping the environment. It can be a lot of fun if you have other people doing the same thing together!”
Kevin Vega, a J-1 intern from Mexico expressed, “It felt really good to spend some time helping out on a greater project that will make a difference over the weekend.”
The participants spent the remainder of the afternoon sharing their experiences with one another, highlighting where they had traveled thus far during their stay in the United States, and also taking part in some special activities we arranged, like a raffle drawing, badminton, bocce, ladder golf, and KanJam.
Providing for Those in Need in Washington, D.C.
In the nation’s capital, our staff organized a J Day event that brought together exchange participants from Armenia, Belarus, China, Georgia, and Russia, as well as representatives from the U.S. Department of State, the Alliance for International Exchange, and other area visa sponsoring organizations, including the American Immigration Council and Council for Global Immigration.
Together, they volunteered at Bread for the City, an organization that does vital work providing valuable services to low-income families in the district, including collecting clothing donations.
On the day, they helped sort clothing donations from all over the city and prepare them to be ready for distribution.
After the volunteer event, our group braved triple-digit temperatures for the chance to get to know one another on a more personal level at a picnic we hosted in Meridian Hill Park.
We were grateful to be a part of a truly nationwide effort, with 28 events across 17 states, to recognize the value of giving back and bringing people together through international exchange.