By Trish Johnston
The Maritime industry is a unique world of its own. Through working with the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey over the last two months, I’ve gotten to learn about this world that not many people get to see, or even know exists. 90% of the consumer goods we use each day come to us through international shipping. Take a look around you: your cellphone, the banana you brought with lunch, the chocolate bar sitting in the candy dish. You have all of these things in part thanks to international shipping and, if you’re in the greater Philadelphia region, our port.
SCI is an agency that helps the workers that keep the international shipping industry running. Annually, we see 30,000 seafarers who dock in our terminals from countries all over the world. So far, I have personally met seafarers from the Philippines, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, India, Romania, China, Latvia and Georgia. The ships these seafarers work on are massive floating structures. Two days a week I get the opportunity to actually board huge cargo ships to visit the crew members.
You truly never know what you’re going to get when you head to a terminal for a ship visit. One day I boarded a ship to discover what looked like aliens out of a movie moving slowly down the hall towards me. Turns out it was just the coast guard in full fire-proof gear, doing a drill. One day I boarded my first car ship. Imagine a twelve story parking garage that floats. That’s what this ship was. It even had an elevator on board. But I happened to board during the offload of 1,600 vehicles. Longshoremen board the ship, get in a car, drive it to a lot close by, hop in a van, get driven back up to the ship and do it all over again. It’s chaotic, overwhelming and loud as you’re standing in the hull and it was quite an experience for my first time on the auto ship.
While working for SCI gives me great stories to tell about the Maritime industry, the best stories come from the seafarers we serve. 98% of them are male and usually work a 6-9 month contract, have 3 months of vacation and then are back out at sea. They live a hard life, away from their families for long stretches of time. SCI provides little things like phone cards, transportation, and home cooked meals, to try to make these guys’ lives a little better.
On one of my first days out visiting, the seafarers asked to be taken somewhere they could transfer money. It had already been a stressful day and then we got lost trying to find the Western Union. When we finally arrived, we sat in the van so the seafarers could go inside. It felt like it took them forever to go what they needed to do. My fellow visitor Sharon and I fervently discussed how much gas we were wasting idling outside the shop, how much time we had spent waiting and how many more stops we had left in our day (it was several). We were anxious to get moving so that we could get everything done. In a later conversation with the seafarer I learned that he was wiring money home because his 7 year old daughter was in the hospital and his wife needed money to pay the doctor. He assured me that she was going to be ok, that it was just a high fever and that he was very appreciative of the van ride. It was a nice reminder of how much our work means to the people we serve. It didn’t matter how long we waited or how much gas we burned. We were making a difference for someone who really needed it.
Another day, we got word that a Filipino seafarer who had family in Philadelphia was coming into port in Camden, but lacked the proper visa to get off the ship. We worked with the security of the terminal and family to get them access to the ship. We were able to facilitate a reunion between the seafarer and his sister and nephew. It was the first time they had seen each other in 11 years, since before the sister and her children emigrated to the United States. I was able to be there as they came on board, hugs were exchanged and tears flowed (maybe a few of mine too).
Its experiences like these that make me so grateful that I was placed at SCI. Every day when I hop into the van, I never know what’s waiting for me, every day is an adventure, just the way I like it!
Trish serves as Volunteer Coordinator at Seamen's Church Institute.
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