New Brunswick

'A heart for lonely people': Seafarers' mission eases homesickness at Christmastime

The Saint John Seafarers' Mission takes its goal of providing a home-away-from-home atmosphere for sailors visiting the port city seriously, and Christmastime is an extra special effort to help alleviate homesickness.

Even the simplest gesture can make a difference for sailors visiting Saint John

Visiting sailors are shown at the Saint John Seafarers' Mission. (Seafarers' Mission/Facebook)

It isn't easy being far from home at Christmastime.

Few people likely experience that feeling more than the crew of an ocean-going ship, something the manager of the Saint John Seafarers' Mission sees a lot this time of year.

"I really have a heart for lonely people," said Bev Sullivan. "And a lot of these guys are lonely for their families."

One of the mission's goals is to help alleviate that feeling of being so far away from loved ones, even if it's just for a few hours spent ashore.

"So I can be somebody's, in their minds, aunt, mother, now I'm at the point where I can be grandmother," Sullivan said with a laugh..

"When I hear them say this place feels like home, it just touches me."

Eric Phinney and Bev Sullivan do what they can to make the seafarers' mission feel like home. (Steven Webb/CBC)

The mission is in a mini home right next to the port on the city's west side.

If it didn't have a sign out front, it could pass for a residence in an odd location.

Other than a welcoming front desk and a small chapel at one end, it really does look like a home inside, too.

It has a kitchen, large family/dining room with lots of comfortable places to sit, rooms to make a private call, and a recreation area with a pool table as its central feature.

Port chaplain Eric Phinney said, while the mission is there to offer help in emergency cases, most sailors have simpler needs.

A bulletin board at the Saint John Seafarers' Mission contains photos of crew and currency from around the world.

"A lot of times when these guys come, they just want to get off the ship," Phinney said. "You know, they just want to get away from the steel walls and the running machinery and all that sort of thing.

"They just want to sit in a room like this with a nice padded couch and have a fresh cup of coffee and just be away from the workplace. And then they want to be able to call home."

The mission has free Wi-Fi that operates 24 hours a day so people can connect even when the building isn't open.  

Phinney said it is well-used.

"A lot of times when you come into the mission here, it'll be very quiet," he said, "but there might be 10 guys sitting around here and they'll all have their phones open and they have headphones on and they're communicating with their loved ones back home."

Daeniel Saturno, left, and Frank Torres are crew members of the container ship AS Floretta. (Steven Webb/CBC)

Daeniel Saturno and Frank Torres are crew members on the container ship AS Floretta, which arrived in Saint John from New York on Friday.

Saturno, who is from the Philippines, and Torres, from Peru, dropped into the mission to find out what there was to see in the city.

Saturno said many fellow crew members headed to the local Wal-Mart, but he wanted to look around.

"On my case, I am going to other places I have never been before, like museum or some places where I can take picture with, because most of the places, like, Wal-Marts are everywhere."

Saturno has been sailing for eight years. Torres is on his first contract.  

Contracts range from seven to 11 months at sea, and it's a long time to be away from home and family.

Far from home

"Yeah, of course I miss them," said Torres, "My mother is always worried about me, but, yeah, you know, it's like, 'It's my job, mom, don't worry, I'm alive, I'm OK.'" 

For Saturno, this trip has been a little different.

"It's my first contract that I am a father," Saturno said. "So, I had a daughter in the Philippines and I left them for this job and I'm working for them, so it's hard, pretty hard, to go far away, half across the world to work and be away from them."

"I don't want to miss the things that you cannot just go back to," Saturno said, "you know, how my daughter grows up."

Saturno's daughter turned six months old the day before his ship sailed into Saint John.  He won't see her until her first birthday.

The circled 17 is the number of Christmas packages headed to the AS Floretta, one for each crew member on board. (Steven Webb/CBC)

"I only see her in the phone or on the pictures that my wife is sending me," Saturno said.

Both men will celebrate Christmas at sea this year, when the AS Floretta is on its way to Savannah, Ga.

They'll take with them a present from the mission, a parcel put together with the help of volunteers, including lots of donated items.

The packages are full of things easily taken for granted — socks, gloves, hats and scarves, toiletries, candies, games and books.

But Phinney said when he delivers parcels to the ships, they are appreciated and the crews are excited to get them.

It's not always easy to get the Christmas parcels on board. (Eric Phinney/Seafarers' Mission)

"I can do something so, so simple. I could be selling phone cards or driving the van just like a taxi driver, a very, very simple, simple job," said Phinney. "And what's happening for the seafarer is I am solving a huge problem for him.

"For me. personally, that's very fulfilling."

Saturno and Torres got more than just directions for their sight-seeing tour at the mission. Phinney made suggestions, offered to drive them where they wanted to go, and arranged to pick them up to get them back to their ship before it sailed.

Saturno looked at Torres with a smile and a thumbs up, saying, "We don't have to walk!".

A simple task, well-appreciated.

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