Seafarer Centre of the Year

Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey is proud to have been nominated by seafarers and chosen as one of six finalists for SEAFARERS’ CENTRE OF THE YEAR by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network.

Our Executive Director Helene Pierson responded to a series of questions from ISWAN as part of this nomination, and her answers describe SCI’s unique approach to our mission and to the challenges posed by current issues in the shipping industry.

Describe the Centre’s Welfare Services and Facilities

In today’s environment, we believe that the seafarer IS the center. Since our initial founding with a chapel on a pier of the Delaware in 1843, to the expansion to advocacy for seafarers, to the good times when centers could offer some significant recreation time due to longer times in port than today (we had square dance back then!), the facility or physical center was the significant hub of activity. Now that times in ports can be only a matter of hours for some, and many cannot get off the ship at all, we think mainly of how to best meet the needs of the person. We still do have a place for seafarers to rest away from the ship with a beautiful chapel, WiFi, and free refreshments. Our chaplains or any of our staff will offer a friendly smile or a listening ear. We are several times a year the dropoff point for seafarers arriving to meet their ship from their homeland, and they spend the day here while waiting for the ship to arrive. It has become tradition to immediately take the arriving seafarers to a hot breakfast at the diner around the corner.

When is the Centre Open?

Our center is open 7 days a week. During the week, we are open from 9am to 11pm. On the weekends, we are open from Noon to 11pm.

How easy is it for seafarers to access the centre? Do you provide transport to/from the centre?

We provide transport to and from the center. Given our location on the edge of center city Philadelphia, it is a must. Our service area covers two states, and a mix of 30 public and private port terminals over 41 nautical miles. One of the main reasons that seafarers still come to the physical center is our annual holiday service and amazing dinner provided by the local Vietnamese and Korean communities.

Do you carry out ship visiting?

Yes! We strive to visit every ship that docks at our ports. We serve about 1700 ships every year.

What services do you offer seafarers on board?

We think of our main three services as welcoming the seafarer to our area, providing free WiFi, and providing free transport. The welcoming of the seafarer could be a hello to the working crew, to group or private sit-down conversations with seafarers.  In addition, we bring a variety of items to the seafarer that makes them know that people care—cookies baked by area churches, free magazines generously supplied by publishers, ditty bags at Christmas full of essentials, donated coats, and today, as the Philadelphia region’s low temperature is about to be -3 degrees Fahrenheit, and unusual low for our area, we are providing full face cover knit hats to the ships. The number one transport need is simply to get to our local necessities stock-up store, Walmart. Seafarers also go to area malls and do more substantial shopping, and sometimes look to visit the tourist attractions, most especially the art museum steps made famous by the Rocky movies.
How do you make sure that the centre meets the needs of seafarers?

We strive to pay attention to the spoken and unspoken needs of the seafarers, and be aware of what the seafarer wants vs. what we want to provide. For spoken needs, access to communication is their number one request. We have 22 hot spots that we deliver and retrieve from ships (2-4 per ship) that allow the seafarer to communicate with family and see their children. In addition, we periodically provide transport of relatives if seafarers have loved ones in the area. An example of the unspoken, is that we sometimes identify medical needs and we will visit seafarers in the hospital that have to leave their ships for emergency situations. Our main source for keeping in touch with the needs of the seafarers in a prioritized way while balancing resources available is our membership in the North American Maritime Ministry Association.   While we focus heavily on the day to day, they do wonderful research work and provide an annual conference that is filled with information for us all to do our best.

How do you work with other welfare organizations in your port?

In our port, we are the primary welfare organization that all others serve. It works well. Instead of the Apostle of the Sea setting up a separate organization, we have a designated chaplain through our partnership with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for Father Renny Abraham to work under our umbrella. The same is true of Seafarers International House of New York. We are fortunate that they are able to fund a chaplain to serve ships via our organization as well.

For more than a year, a partnership of which we are very honored to have formed is with Philadelphia SESAMO, which is a worldwide organization of people concerned with the tragic events that lead to the sinking of the Sewol Ferry in 2014. This partnership is growing into a concern for additional ship sinkings that have led to loss of life, most recently focusing on the Stellar Daisy.  When MLC 2006 was implemented around the globe, and followed here in the United States, while not perfect, conditions are pretty good for the seafarers that visit our ports. We are very concerned and need to be vigilant that money decisions aren’t made that put the seafarer at greater risk and have found our partnership with SESAMO a passionate way to do so.