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Seattle Seafarers Center Provides Unique Support to Ship Crews

November 2, 2023

The life of a mariner is not for the faint of heart. Long hours, grueling work, confined quarters, and being away from family and friends for months at a time can take its toll on these workers from all over the world. As their ships make stops in ports hundreds or thousands away from home, having the support of someone on land can make all the difference.

The Seattle Seafarers Center serves as a home away from home, supporting mariners, a group whose physical and mental health needs are often overlooked. The Center, an affiliate of the international organizations Mission to Seafarers and Stella Maris, has a mission to welcome and care for the crew on the 30 ships a month (300-400 a year) that visit the Port of Seattle. Volunteers also visit Port of Everett and Port of Tacoma on occasion. Seafarers include those who work on board cargo, container ships, and cruise ships.

The Center provides support by visiting ship crews on board, providing transportation between the ship and the community, and referring crew to vaccine providers. Crew members can also get SIM cards for their non-U.S. phones, a local mailing address at the center to receive mail, and other basic necessities. Staff and volunteers try to provide personal support tailored to individual needs. For example,  a bulk carrier came to Seattle to unload cement from Vietnam. The Chief Engineer from China was one of the few crew members with a visa that allowed shore leave.  After several trips to western U.S. ports in the past three years, this was the first time he was able to visit an American city and get off the boat. As he stepped off the gangway he said, “This is my first time on American soil” with a big smile on his face. His first order of business was a Seattle shopping trip, but as a big NBA fan, he said his real hope was to watch the Golden State Warriors play that night on television. He had never been able to watch the games on the ship or in his small village in China. The Seafarers Center staff set him up on their Wi-Fi to watch the game at the Center.


Passionate staff and volunteers

Julia Cooper, Director of Operations at the Seattle Seafarers Center, started interning at the Center through the Episcopal Service Corps. She was interested in shifting into non-profit work after a career in tech. “The work of the Seafarers Center was new to me,” she said. “I grew up sailing and on the water, but I knew nothing about the shipping industry and the seafarers.” The internship eventually grew into a full-time paid role. Today, as Director of Operations, she manages volunteers, supervises interns, and operates the nonprofit organization. 
Cooper is part of a small but mighty staff that also includes Executive Director Rich Shively and Senior Port Chaplain Deacon Joey De Leon. In addition, a full-time intern and a group of part-time volunteers provide support. They visit ships in port and drive shuttles to take crews shopping, sightseeing, or on errands. In the winter, volunteers assemble care packages for ship crews that include a hand-knit hat and toiletries. They distribute 1,200 bags to mariners between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
With unpredictable shipping schedules and unique crew needs,  working at the Seafarer’s Center is different every day. During the pandemic, Seafarers Center staff and volunteers made shopping trips for crews because seafarers were not allowed to leave the ship. Even after the pandemic seafarers without a green card can't leave the ship, so the Center staff can provide support. Shopping is the most common request with trips to places like Pacific Place or South Center Mall. International crews can find cheaper prices for items like electronics and chocolates in the U.S. And they are looking for gifts to bring home after spending nine months on a ship. Other excursions include sightseeing to tourist hotspots like the Space Needle, Pike Place Public Market, and the Museum of Flight.


Meeting spiritual and emotional needs

The Center’s trained chaplain supports mariners’ spiritual needs and emotional well-being. Deacon Joey De Leon serves as Senior Port Chaplain for the Seattle Seafarers Center and is a Catholic Deacon with the Archdiocese of Seattle. As the longest-serving team member, he trains most of the volunteers. He checks in daily with mariners to hear how they are doing emotionally and physically while at sea. “Seafarers are always excited to see a new face on board — someone they feel cares for them, someone who asks how they are doing, how long they have been on the ship, or how their family is doing back home,” he said. “Many seafarers are on the ship nine months out of the year so there is a tendency for homesickness, loneliness, and depression.” He said one of the Seafarers Center’s goals is to make seafarers, who are often overlooked, more visible to the community. “They are marginalized in that they are not normally able to participate in a community’s support because they don’t live here. We give them the support people can traditionally get from a parish.” The chaplain supports occasional requests for a religious service or memorial service on board.


Rewarding work

“It’s rewarding to meet people from all around the world and get to hear their stories,” Cooper said. “There’s not really other people coming on board to visit crews and check-in. We can be a resource to them and provide a service they wouldn’t normally get otherwise.”

Seafarer centers are common around the world, so the ship's crew is excited when new faces from the Center come on board. “The crew has often been on board with the same 20 people for nine months. It’s refreshing for them to have new people to talk to,” Cooper said.

The Seafarers Center is always looking for volunteers to help in three different areas: 

  • Driving van shuttles for cruise ship crew with 15 passengers in a loop between Pier 91 and downtown
  • Visiting cargo ships on weekdays and providing transportation to their crew
  • Donating items for care packages including full-size toiletries, warm hats, and other clothing

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