'Janji' is two young runners' way of helping in Kenya, Haiti

David Spandorfer with a shirt bearing Kenya's colors. He and his friend and fellow runner Mike Burnstein "wanted to find a way to give back to a sport that had given so much to us," he says. MICHAEL BRYANT?/? Staff Photographer
David Spandorfer with a shirt bearing Kenya's colors. He and his friend and fellow runner Mike Burnstein "wanted to find a way to give back to a sport that had given so much to us," he says. MICHAEL BRYANT?/? Staff Photographer
Posted: June 19, 2012

Dave Spandorfer describes himself as "a total running nerd."

"I'm not a very athletic guy, but somehow I was blessed to find running," he says.

Spandorfer, of Narberth, sells himself short. At Lower Merion High School, he was a standout in cross-country and track. He was the school's top runner in his junior and senior years, was elected team captain, and was speedy and durable enough to qualify for the state championships.

He continued to excel at Washington University in St. Louis, where he set four school records, including an indoor mile mark of 4:15.

One day in the spring of 2010, as he and Mike Burnstein, his close friend, teammate, and running rival, were riding the bus to the Division III outdoor track championships, they were thinking about the world beyond running.

"We realized running had been incredible to us, and we wanted to find a way to give back to a sport that had given so much to us," Spandorfer says. "We thought about doing a race for a cause, but we knew that giving back through a single race would begin and end on race day."

Instead, what they came up with was a line of running shorts and shirts designed in the colors of the flags of countries such as Kenya and Haiti, where there is an acute food and water crisis.

"What we wanted to do is find a way for runners to give back each and every time they run," Spandorfer says.

They decided to call their line of running wear Janji, which means "promise" in Malay.

They had an idea, but no business plan. So they took a class in entrepreneurship at Washington U. and tapped the wisdom of experts at the college's Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. The center sponsors a contest for social entrepreneurship and innovation, and Spandorfer and Burnstein, 22, won $15,000, the top amount for an undergrad entry. They won an additional $20,000 in a competition in Colorado.

"That gave us the funding, and most importantly, the confidence to get started," Spandorfer says.

The line was launched last month in St. Louis. The shorts and shirts, designed by David Hamm, a fellow Washington U. cross-country runner, display the colors of Kenya (black, red, and green) and Haiti (blue, red, and white).

In Kenya, 17 million people lack access to water, and proceeds from each sale of the Kenya shorts or shirt represent a season's worth of water to a Kenyan family of eight, Spandorfer says. In Haiti, where 25 percent of Haitian children are severely malnourished, proceeds from each item of the Haiti apparel means eight packets of nutritional medicine.

On a recent evening, the Janji gear was unveiled locally at Bryn Mawr Running Co., where Spandorfer bought his first pair of running shoes at age 13. That model turned out to be the "perfect shoe" for Spandorfer, who still runs in shoes of similar design.

A crowd of about 100 showed up, mostly lean young men with ectomorphic builds. They sampled Kenyan and Haitian food prepared by Spandorfer's mother, Amy Jordan, and lined up at the cash register to purchase shorts ($38) and shirts ($30, made of wicking polyester).

Adam Beardsley, 18, a cross-country runner and newly minted Lower Merion grad from Wynnewood, picked out a pair of shorts in the colors of Kenya.

"Even though they're more expensive than other shorts, the design is cool and you know you're donating money to a great cause," Beardsley said.

Among those attending was Megan Capewell, the vivacious coach of Lower Merion's boys' cross-country team. She well remembers Spandorfer's time on the squad.

"He was very driven," Capewell recalls. "He had a thought, a plan behind it, and nothing would stand in his way."

Cross-country runners have a reputation for being cerebral and reflective. I asked Capewell whether they might also share a philanthropic streak.

"Everyone who runs long distance wants to share that experience," Capewell replied, "because they know it's done a lot for their mind and body."

So far, 92 specialty running stores in 28 states, from Alaska to Florida, have placed orders. Next winter and spring, Janji will offer running apparel in the colors of Bangladesh, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

"As runners, we know that food and water are critical for our training, yet hundreds of millions of people lack access to these basic resources every single day of their lives," Spandorfer says. "There's a natural connection between runners and giving and runners and food and water.

“Running is an individual sport. That's why it's so important to run for something bigger than yourself. We at Janji want to create a community of runners dedicated not just to running for personal benefit but to running for all those suffering from the global food and water crisis."

Right now, Spandorfer, Janji's cofounder and president, is on top of the world, doing well by doing good.

"To be able to start a company with a friend like Mike is really amazing," he says, "and to do it with something that you love is like a dream come true for a 23-year-old."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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