Shoebox Christmas in Fort Lauderdale

Article audio (courtesy of Don Sheetz)

by Susan Huppert, NAMMA

Following COVID-19 limitations and a long-anticipated re-opening, seafarers are now flooding the new Seafarers’ House, a multi-faith mission to seafarers in Port Everglades, Florida. The center offering pool tables, internet, an in-house store and relaxing facilities is used by seafarers from many countries. In addition, meeting rooms and designated space are now available just in time for the Christmas shoebox program, which launched on November 17.

“We are overflowing with seafarers and port workers,” said Erika Sears, a five-year staff member. ‘Yesterday, we had seven cruise ships in port.”

As the Christmas shoebox program manager, Sears coordinates the organization of donations and the 50 volunteers who assist with preparing and delivering the shoeboxes.

“The seafarers are always happy to see us. They appreciate the gifts of toiletries as it saves them money, leaving more to send home to their families,” she said. “They are impressed when they learn that the cookies included with their gifts are home-baked by someone who cares about them.”

The shoebox program is a year-long effort to raise awareness and secure continued support. Sears promotes the giving campaign among churches, corporate donors and individuals. The year of pandemic caused a drop in support. Building back is a process.

“Our biggest challenge is that people will continue to donate,” she said. “We see that the donations we receive, mostly from individuals, are less than normal because of the current economy.”

However, this year, one donation was an unexpected blessing.

According to Executive Director Jennifer Stewart, the ministry was pleasantly shocked when Royal Caribbean Cruise Line leadership generously donated six pallets of filled shoeboxes.

Seafarers House gratefully receives support from other port businesses, including Cliff Berry, Total Marine Solutions, and WISTA, alongside those from churches, youth groups and individuals.  

Maintaining healthy relationships with the business and church communities is a commitment the Seafarers’ House feels is primary to a successful ongoing ministry.

Historically, 1,000 boxes have been given during the holiday season. This year, within the first three days, 400 boxes were given out. The 2023 goal is 1,500.

Individuality matters as far as possible. Chinese seafarers receive boxes filled with items specific to their culture thanks to volunteer Chinese chaplains. In addition, as the number of female seafarers increases, gift boxes designated for women are also prepared.

The individual attention matters to the ministry’s volunteer Debra Hoecker, affectionally known as the “Shoebox Queen.” The 73-year-old volunteer thrives in the program’s backroom operations.

“It is hard to put in a nutshell why I do this,” she said. “I enjoy it. It is my way of giving back.”

Her seven-year role leaves Hoecker well acquainted with the sacrifices seafarers make as they move the world’s goods. She recounted that “during the pre-COVID and COVID time, seafarers were not allowed off their ships for months and months and months.”

The global pandemic has passed, but her commitment remains.

“Mariners on containerships sacrifice a lot to do these jobs,” said the Shoebox Queen. “The gift boxes give dignity to seafarers for the incredibly hard job they do. I add ribbons to the boxes to say, it’s a big deal.

“It is dear to my heart. It really is.”

Photo: Facebook Seafarers’ House


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