Seafarers’ Christmas in the Ports of Philadelphia and South Jersey

Article audio (courtesy of Don Sheetz)

by Susan Huppert, NAMMA

The Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey cares for seafarers who travel the globe and pass along the Delaware River. Commonly unnoticed, they absorb personal sacrifices, including war strife, to transport goods we use in our everyday lives.  

It is fitting that at Christmas, they receive an extra measure of care through the traditional Ditty Bag Program. The center’s staff and its dedicated volunteers are diligently working to make a difference serving 26 terminals in two states along the River. The outreach includes ships docked up to one hour north and one-half hour south of the center.

“It’s a bit of a miracle every year,” said Executive Director Helene Pierson. “All year long people are knitting, collecting and dropping off items to include in the gift bags. It’s a major operation every year.”

The first notice of the annual program is sent to supporters in early Sept. As donations begin to arrive, volunteers manage mailings, data entry, and storage. Thanks to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which made 2,500 square feet available, donations can be received and organized in preparation for the coordinated Christmas delivery.

“We have wonderful volunteers who show up to stuff the bags with donated gifts,” said Pierson.

Once filled, the bulging red bags are then assembled into larger clear bags for delivery to ships. During December, the mission’s 10 ship visitors hoist bags up gangways, triggering smiles and anticipation among the multinational crews. When assistance is needed with the nearly 40-pound load, willing young seafarers will scurry down to assist.

At times, a small Christmas tree pulled from storage is waiting in a mess room or common area. The simple gifts will likely be opened while at sea far from any worker’s family or home. It makes a difference.

“Crew members send thank you notes and heart-warming photos back. It truly feels they are grateful to be thought of when away from their families,” said Piersen.

The SCI of Philadelphia and South Jersey proactively serves the human needs of the maritime community from all countries and cultures. The mission extends care for those who live and work at sea reaching back to 1848. At that time, a “Floating Chapel” was established in the Philadelphia port for the personal care and support of this unique people group. The original bell from the Floating Chapel, displayed at the center testifies to the longevity of outreach and duration of care for those who work at sea. The Ditty Bag Program puts hands and feet to the commitment.

Last December the mission visited 110 ships with 2,500 ditty bags filled with hand-knit watch caps and scarves, playing cards, sewing kits, writing supplies, candies, cough drops and more. This year may likely be more.  

Whether large or small, all contributions to the program are making Christmas joyful on the Delaware River for many people we might otherwise never get to meet.

Photo: Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia & South Jersey. You can learn more about how to support SCI and the Ditty Bag program here.


NAMMA members receive a print copy of The MARE Report, NAMMA’s annual magazines for seafarer’s welfare professionals