Christmas Cheer for Visiting Seafarers

by Susan Huppert, NAMMA

The Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey extends Christmas cheer to the international seafarers who bring Christmas to others through their labor.  

The ecumenical faith agency provides for the human needs of seafarers and the wellbeing of those of the Delaware River ports. The outreach, which once offered a center for rest and recreation, has found seafarers visiting their center less realistic than in the past due to the increased pace of global economics. Most recently, vehicles are used to touch base with the 28 terminals in the scope of their care where an estimated 1,700 ships dock annually. Because vessels are challenged with short time spans before heading back to sea and COVID-19 restrictions are in place, the staff and volunteers strive to access the crews and assess their needs within a brief window of opportunity. It’s mid-December and the Christmas Ditty Bag gift program is extensive.

“It’s quite a haul,” said Executive Director Helene Pierson. “Last Tuesday we had nine new ships in.” 

The global pandemic has affected personal and corporate finances, trickling down to charitable donations. Funding for gifts is lean.  

“Our collections from churches and corporations were way down this year,” said Pierson.

However, thanks to a grant of $750USD given through the International Christian Maritime Association from the ITF Seafarers’ Trust, a full giving campaign was attainable. The full campaign of 2,200 gift bags are filled with toiletries, stocking caps, socks and small personal items.

Although it may seem slight, each gift is a thank you gesture from caring people whom the seafarers will likely never meet. The response is gratitude every time.

“It’s inspiring because of how happy the seafarers are,” remarked Tony Coppola, according to Pierson. Coppola is a long-term ship visitor and host for the mission. “This year, more than ever we are seeing how grateful they are.”

Something special in their practical gift is important since many of these men are working beyond their contracts in tough times often feeling weary and forgotten. The gifts given are a symbol of the greater concern extended at such missions toward those who make their living at sea.

An email from the M/T Sea Vine to the mission confirms Coppola’s personal observation:

Good Day Sir/Madam,

The Master and all officers and crew of the Sea Vine would like to express our thankfulness for the plentiful items your good institute had shared with us. In times of great difficulties brought by the present pandemic, these items of necessities give us the feeling of being cared for.

Best Regards and a whole lot of thanks,

Capt. Rodil D. Simon, Officers and Crew

Meanwhile, on the California coast, it was recommended by authorities at the Port of Hueneme that the signature item of home-baked cookies, specific to the Ditty Bag program, be discontinued this Christmas due to COVID-19.

The Port of Hueneme is the only deep-water port between San Francisco and Los Angeles and home to the International Mariner’s Center. The non-profit center cares for the needs of the multi-national, multi-lingual seafarers who call at their docks. It is supported by corporate, religious and individual donors and a dedicated core of staff and volunteers. Subtracting the homemade cookie factor, which the seafarers looked forward to, was disappointing but understood.

“Donations were down significantly this year,” said Charles Caulkin, who serves as president of the organization. “Yet, it was one of our most successful years even without our signature cookies, due in part to extra donations like those from the ITF Seafarers’ Trust.

“[This donation] was just amazing and could not have come at a better time,” said Caulkin.

The ITF grant of $750USD helped the west coast outreach purchase 480 personal hygiene kits and supplemented the $1,000 spent on socks.  About 270 gifts have already been distributed to the seafarers at the Port of Hueneme and will continue to be given as long as they last.  

“There is no way to describe their reaction when they see the gifts except overwhelming joy,” said Caulkin, a former U.S. Navy officer familiar with life at sea. “Their faces just light up.”

Some save the gifts until Christmas and all open them together. Whether in a small mess room with an artificial tree on the seas, at anchorage, or docked in a strange port, Christmas comes even on ships.

“The response of the seafarers makes it all worthwhile,” said Caulkin.

Further north, the Seattle Seafarers Center also received grant funds from the ITF Seafarers’ Trust. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Seattle location received the bulk of its operating support from donations received for the transport service it offered to cruise ships workers.

 “It’s really tough for us right now,” said Barbara Blackistone, the Chief Operating Officer of the mission. “It’s a combination of less cruise ships and people trying to be generous when money is tight.”

Thanks to the additional funds of $750USD from the ITF Seafarers’ Trust this year, Christmas giving continues. 

The Seattle outreach boards the ships in their port and gives ditty bags to each seafarer on the approximate 30 ships a month during the holiday season.

“I did that yesterday,” said Blackistone. “The crew are always delighted. Everyone comes around when they hear I am on board.”

Holiday giving is a team effort at the Seattle location. Volunteers sew the bags and fill them at the center with hats and toiletries.

“We hope to give 1,000 bags away,” said Blackistone.

We are frequent shoppers of The Dollar Tree where we can really stretch the money we have been given.”  

A letter from the ITF is also included in each gift this year, personally affirming the seafarers and acknowledging the sacrifices they are making to maintain the flow of goods globally amid significant additional challenges.