For the past five years, Barb Pilarski, Head of Business Development at FCA – North America, has also held the unofficial title of chief administrator for FCA’s Team Jeep – rounding up participants and leading fundraising efforts for United Way for Southeastern Michigan Run United team, which typically participates in the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon every October.
This year she is proudly adding one more title: Team Jeep walker.
The Run United team brings together runners and walkers from United Way’s corporate partners, as well as the community, to raise funds that are used to help create more stable households where children can thrive. Team Jeep is a key supporter and sponsor of the effort, raising more than $300,000 for families since 2016.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit southeastern Michigan, United Way and FCA wanted to do something to support people impacted by the pandemic and carry on the momentum of Run United. In August, they launched the first-ever Run United Virtual Marathon. This unique event challenged participants to log 26.2 miles over the course of a month—the distance of a marathon—ending with a 1.2-mile run or walk on Oct. 18, the date of what would have been the 2020 Free Press Marathon.
Funds raised by the Run United Virtual Marathon go to support United Way’s efforts to support digital inclusion in Detroit, providing students with laptops and other technology they need to learn.
Motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic and growing need in the community, Barb is putting down her pom-poms and putting on her walking shoes as a first-time participant. This year’s marathon is taking a new, virtual format, which made it easier for Barb and others to get involved.
Nearly 650 individuals registered for the virtual event. Participants were asked to log at least 25 miles on their own between Sep. 16 and Oct. 17. On Oct. 18, everyone will complete the final 1.2 miles together in a virtual “race.”
Aside from FCA, multiple companies hosted teams and encouraged their employees to join and fundraise, including Ford, OneMagnify, Comerica, PwC, Hollingsworth, IHS Markit and 3M. Nearly 50 United Way staff also participated.
Each runner created a personalized profile to track their progress over the past month. Participants earned points by fundraising, posting photos, logging miles, volunteering, and inviting friends and family to join.
“We’re so proud of how the Run United Marathon continues to grow year over year and what that means to local families,” said Chris Perry, chief marketing and engagement officer at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched the resources of the families who were already struggling to make ends meet, but we continue to see the community and our corporate partners rise to the challenge and support one another through the toughest of times.”
The virtual marathon opened up the possibilities for participants looking to take part in the event. Participants ran, walked, biked and even kayaked their miles. Many took along their kids, spouses and dogs as they logged their miles.
And the virtual component meant that no one had to be in Detroit. Participants hailed from all over North America, with 38 states represented, as well as Canada and Mexico.
Initially, Barb was concerned that the pandemic might make it harder for her to motivate people to get involved in this year’s race and fundraising activities.
“Actually, we’ve seen just the opposite,” she said. “People were looking to get out of their houses, get some exercise, and create a sense of togetherness. The flexibility of an event where folks can run, walk or bike at their own pace has been an enabler for us to expand the number of participants.”
Team Jeep has more than doubled in size for the 2020 race with 328 members from the FCA family, almost 90 percent of whom are first-timers.
All funds raised go toward equipping Detroit students with the technology they need to learn. As of Oct. 19, the Run United Virtual Marathon had raised more than $176,000 — enough to provide technology to 880 students.
More than $135,000 of that was raised by Team Jeep.
“With COVID-19, people are being impacted directly,” Barb said. “Many FCA parents have their school-aged kids at home and so they’re experiencing first-hand how critical the right technology is to their children’s success. That personal experience has made it easier for Team Jeep members to ask for donations, and for more people to want to contribute financially to the cause.”
“I just wanted to help the kids in Detroit have the same technology for their education that my kids have,” said Marlo Vitous, who is one of Team Jeep’s top fundraisers as well as Head of Supply Chain Management Planning at FCA – North America. “My friends and my supply chain team have really made the difference with their generous donations. I’m so thankful to all of them.”
Team Jeep was initially formed in 2016. In the years that have followed, FCA employees from the C-Suite to the production line have made supporting Team Jeep a priority.
“The Run United Virtual Marathon event would not be as successful without Team Jeep,” said Audrey Walker, corporate relations director at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “The event has grown because Team Jeep has grown, which is just an extension of the great work the FCA team does for United Way year-round.”
The future of in-person running events is uncertain for 2021. But both United Way and FCA look forward to continuing the virtual event next year.
Fundraising remains open through Nov. 30. To support any of the Run United participants, visit UnitedWaySEM.org/VirtualMarathon.