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Volunteers go the extra mile for Disney Marathon

by: Deb Wills Updated:

The Walt Disney World Marathon was held earlier this month, and thousands of people came from all over the world to participate. Yes, I said to participate, not just to run. In fact, you don’t have to be a runner to be part of this fantastic weekend -- you can volunteer! 

Volunteering at events such as this is an amazing experience.  You meet new people, get out of your regular routine, give something back to the community and Disney even gives you a free T-shirt for your efforts.  In fact, if you accumulate enough volunteer hours, you can even earn a one-day theme park ticket! I call that a win for everyone (image).

As a participant in the 2012 Marathon Weekend's 5K event (image), I went to register on the first day at the ESPN Wide World of Sports.

GALLERY:  Marathon Volunteers Make Difference at Disney

While there, I watched the volunteers and spoke to a number of them about their experiences (image). I wanted to find out just what draws them to volunteer year after year.

I was amazed at how many people told me it was the 5th, 10th or even 15th Disney event they had volunteered at. One gentleman I met told me that he had come alone to the first event he volunteered at, but now he has good friends and an extended family from all around the globe.

I met Mary Ann and Steve Giatroudakis (image), both in their mid-60s, at the Goofy Challenge pickup area. Central Florida residents, they have been volunteering at Disney running events for more than six years.  

“We do almost every event they have, including the AAU national track and field games and the annual PGA tournament," said Mary Ann. "We love it -- it’s addicting and gets into your blood. We have made so many good friends who are just like family. People come from all over and drive hours to volunteer.  We are the lucky ones; we live just a few miles away.”

Paul Lalli (image) and I generally see each other on the race course, but this time when I saw him, he was volunteering. Paul decided to volunteer for Marathon Weekend in mid-September.  

“At the time, I'd completed six runDisney events and thought I should 'give back,' " Paul explained.”I was always immensely grateful to all the volunteers who made those previous events such a success. I had never volunteered for any event before, but it felt like the right thing to do, not to mention something that I certainly COULD do. I was on the Powerade team near the Grand Floridian.  We kept mixing and pouring as fast as we could. I estimate that my one little table made about 120 gallons of Powerade that morning.   I did my best to call out words of encouragement to everyone.  It was just fantastic.  As for what I would say to someone considering volunteering?  'Do it.'  Yes, the hours are early, and yes, the pacing got to be a little stressful.  But the rewards were worth it.  I was surrounded by like-minded people all wanting to do their part, and we were all very appreciated.”

Mary Jean and Nancy Kancel, a local mother-daughter team, volunteered for the first time at the Disney Half Marathon in 2006 and have returned to offer their services regularly since. (image)

“Initially the volunteer perks piqued our interest," Nancy said, "but after participating we found the volunteer experience to be fun. We get to meet interesting people, and we are able to encourage athletes."

Nancy’s day as a course monitor for the Family Fiesta 5K began around 4 a.m. (shift 4:30-9:30 a.m.).  Course monitors are usually stationed on the course to direct runners at spots that might be confusing. Since they are often posted where no other spectators are located, this is also an opportunity to be a one-person cheering machine for runners.  I actually saw Nancy (image) while I was doing the 5K with Mike Scopa! 

Mary Jean, who participates in the events as both a runner and a volunteer, noted at this year’s Half Marathon, “We both worked the Powerade station backstage of Magic Kingdom. This involves setting up the tables, carrying boxes of water to the tables, mixing up huge vats of Powerade, setting up cups, pouring Powerade, handing out Powerade to the runners.”

The volunteer jobs vary greatly from getting up before the crack of dawn to be at the starting line of a race, working indoors at Packet Pick-up, cheering on the course, working the water stops (no matter what the weather is like), crowd control, finish line, medals... the list goes on. Volunteers are the backbone of events such as this. 

To volunteer for a Disney sporting event, simply visit the ESPN Wide World of Sports website: http://espnwwos.disney.go.com/about/volunteer
Select the event you are interested in, agree to the Volunteer Code of Conduct, select the shifts you are willing to work and then wait to hear back. In addition to the runDisney events, there are other volunteering opportunities, including soccer matches, triathlons (Danskin and Ironman), various Track and Field events, and Special Olympics Florida State Games. You might even find yourself retrieving javelins or measuring shot put throws.  Just remember, volunteer positions can fill quickly so don’t wait until the last minute. Sometimes you get your position request, but other times you may not. Being flexible is the key to being a great volunteer – go where you are needed! A couple weeks prior to the event, you will receive information on your shifts, information on where to report, and a waiver to sign.

And sometimes, the unexpected will happen and you'll realize that you are part of something much greater. As Mary Jean Kancel (image) told me, “At a 5K race, an older father was pushing his severely disabled daughter in a wheelchair.  Just before the finish line he picked her up out of the wheelchair so her feet could touch the ground and cross the finish line. It is touching moments like this that keep you coming back.  You realize these events are important to people in ways you had not thought.”

The next time you want to do something different, consider volunteering at a Disney sports event!  You just might find me handing out water right next to you!

Deb Wills is the founder and webmaster of AllEars.Net (established January 1996), which also publishes the AllEars weekly e-newsletter. A veteran of numerous trips to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, Deb is an internationally recognized expert on these vacation destinations, as well as on the Disney Cruise Line. Deb actively participates in events designed to raise funds and awareness in the fight against Breast Cancer, of which she herself is a 25-year survivor. In addition to sponsoring Team AllEars, which participates in runDisney events while generating funds for this cause, Deb has participated in 11 Avon Breast Cancer Walks (both as a walker and a crew member), and has raised more than $325,000 since 2001.  Follow Deb on Twitter at @allearsdeb.