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Stepping Up for the Seafarers Center

Port calls on industry to help improve home away from home

October 26, 2015

Seafarers Center 

Within the Port of Long Beach, in the shadow of billions of dollars of new construction, sits an aging bungalow that houses the nonprofit International Seafarers Center (ISC) of Long Beach/Los Angeles.

For the thousands of seafarers who cross its threshold, it is a second home where they can cook fresh meals, do laundry, and connect with family via the Internet.

“One sailor from the Philippines was able to speak at his mother’s memorial service via Skype,” said ISC Manager Pat Pettit, who comes from a family of merchant mariners and has worked at the center since it opened 32 years ago.

Life at sea isn’t easy, said Barry Basel, a radio officer for Matson, who volunteers at the ISC when he is on leave in Long Beach. Crews are away from their families for weeks, maybe months, depending on their tour of duty, and the high seas are an inherently dangerous workplace. That’s why places like the ISC are so important.

“You walk off the docks into an industrial area with no public transportation where you don’t know anybody,” Basel said. “The center is a safe haven with a local expert you can trust.”

Wong Hoi Chau, captain of the OOCL America, and his shipmates visit the ISC almost daily. Their vessel is at berth for an extended stay of six months while Long Beach Container Terminal tests new equipment at the soon-to-open Middle Harbor terminal. “While we are here, this is our home.”

On a bare-bones budget and an endless supply of heart, the ISC annually welcomes about 12,000 men and women who crew the vessels that move goods valued at more than $400 billion through the nation’s busiest port complex.

Opened in 1983, the ISC started in an old school bus and grew into the 5,315-square-foot amalgamation of modular bungalows it is now. The ISC’s mission is simple: provide a safe place where crews far from home can leave the confines of their ships to relax, refresh, personally prepare a meal and contact loved ones. The center also houses a non-denominational chapel for worship and spiritual support.

While the reception is warm, the structure is less inviting. A rundown kitchen, a leaky roof and a patchwork of balky air conditioners are unmistakable signs of disrepair. So are broken bathroom fixtures, fickle overhead lighting, worn furniture and finances so tight the center must limit its hours of service.

“We’re a less-than-one-star center with a five-star attitude,” said Guy Fox, ISC’s Chairman of the Board. “In a world-class seaport, we can do better.”

Port of Long Beach CEO Jon Slangerup agrees. At the ISC’s recent annual fundraiser, he echoed those sentiments, pledged to be part of the solution, and challenged the industry to step up. “This business would not run without the seafarers,” Slangerup said. “These conditions (at the ISC) are in no way consistent with this port complex being the biggest and the best in North America.”

Staying Afloat

The ISC scrapes by on revenues of about $128,000 a year, enough to cover health insurance and what amounts to a modest stipend for the two-person staff, utilities, and gas, insurance and maintenance for the two vans needed to safely shuttle the seafarers between the ISC, their vessels and downtown Long Beach and San Pedro. Lately, only one van has been in working order.

The ISC also has a small store where seafarers can buy personal items and snacks, offers limited banking services for transferring money, and provides billiards and tennis tables for indoor recreation and outdoor hoops for basketball. Some seafarers have planted vegetables for fellow travelers to enjoy while they are in port. Many don’t have the time or money for more than a brief respite.

The staff consists of Pettit and Assistant Manager Merry Jo Dickey. Chaplain Samson Shekhar Chauhan is among the volunteers who welcome crewmembers and see to their needs. Often, the volunteers are the seafarers themselves who lend a hand to answer phones, make repairs, or help however they can. Crewmen from the OOCL America recently fixed a leaky air conditioning unit and replaced damaged ceiling tiles.

The recent fundraiser, the Maritime Industry Salute and Annual Great Tug Boat Race, is the ISC’s primary source of the funding. A tariff of $35 per vessel call helps, but it is voluntary. The tariff generates about $33,000, approximately one-fourth of the center’s annual income.

The Port of Long Beach provides the land and buildings at no cost. The parcel, about three-quarters of an acre, represents an annual contribution of nearly $80,000. If used for container terminal operations, the value would more than double.

Dedicated volunteers who have kept the center going include Port of Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Rich Dines, who sits on the ISC’s Board of Directors, and Tony Urrutia, a CPA in the Port’s Finance Division, who has served as the ISC’s treasurer for 17 years.

“I can’t say enough about the support from the Port of Long Beach and our other sponsors,” said Fox. “But we all need to do more so our seafarers have a decent place to go in perpetuity.”

Next Steps

Momentum for upgrading the ISC is growing. In recent days, the center acquired two new vans paid for with a $44,000 donation from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), a coalition of trade unions representing various transportation sectors.

Capt. Dick McKenna, the ISC’s President and CEO, worked with the ITF’s Stefan Mueller-Dombois, also an ISC director, to obtain the grant announced at the Oct. 1 fundraiser. Shipping lines, terminal operators, other maritime businesses and the Port of Los Angeles were among the major sponsors of the event. James Callahan, Nautilus Chairman, President and CEO, was this year’s honoree.

More funding is needed to address basic infrastructure needs and secure the ISC’s operating budget going forward. Slangerup has taken the first steps by directing Doug Thiessen, the Port’s Managing Director of Engineering Services, to explore alternate sites for the center within the Port of Long Beach. The current location may no longer be optimal due to its proximity to the Middle Harbor Redevelopment Project, whose new inbound gate opposite the ISC is due to open in early 2016, and ongoing construction of the Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement Project, which will soon require closure of the ISC’s chapel.

More robust fundraising is needed to secure the ISC’s operational budget, Slangerup said. Given that the ISC serves the entire complex, the Port of Los Angeles will also play a crucial role.
 
“Seafarers play a vital role in the maritime industry and serve as a critical link in the San Pedro Bay supply chain and global trade worldwide,” said Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka. “As a tight-knit industry, we can collectively help this often overlooked population of workers who help deliver successes here at our ports every day.”

Fleshing out a viable plan will take time. Working with the ICS, the Port of Los Angeles and other industry partners, Slangerup hopes to propose a course of action to the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners before the year is over. “There is a will and there is a means. We’re figuring out the best way to move forward.”
 
Recently, Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners President Lori Ann Guzmán toured the ISC. “It's very impactful to go there and see how frequently it is being used by our seafarers yet how deteriorated the facility has become,” Guzmán said. “It's all very moving. We need to fix this sooner rather than later.”

VIDEO: Take a look inside the Seafarers Center

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