By Lenis Rodrigues, Media Relations Staff
The holidays are a tough time for mariners at sea who often spend Christmas on cargo ships. Even under ordinary circumstances, these seafarers must be away from family and friends for long stretches of time. During the holiday season, the loneliness of life on the sea is that much harder to bear.
Each year during the holiday season, the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) tries to brighten things up for these men and women by collecting and distributing hand-knit garment packages and hard-to-come-by toiletry items like hand lotion, lip balm and toothbrushes for its Christmas at Sea program. Each gift package also includes a personal letter from the director and an SCI brochure explaining the services provided to mariners.
“We do this to say ‘thanks!’ to the mariners who bring us more than 90 percent of the products we use and whose efforts 365 days a year make our lives more comfortable,” said Stephen Lyman, SCI Director, Port Newark, NJ. The SCI Christmas at Sea program began during the Spanish American War in 1898 and has active knitting groups in all 50 states.
Catherine Pilkington of Union, NJ has contributed to the program for more than 20 years and has knitted more than 50 garments this year alone for SCI locally. Some 25,000 garments have been knitted nationally, and the number continues to grow.
“It’s a wonderful program to help the men and women who sacrifice time away from their families, and I am a proud contributor to this amazing cause,” said the 78-year-old Pilkington. “I knit so much that when I finally stop knitting my husband knows it’s time for bed.”
Last month, SCI held its second annual Port Packing Day, an open house and volunteer day during which the port community came together to pack the collected items. A small army of volunteers, who packed 1,100 gifts, included – besides the Port Authority — employees from the Port Newark Container Terminal, the Bi-State Motor Carriers, the New Jersey Maritime Pilot and Docking Pilot Commission, the New York Shipping Association, Kalustyan Corporation, the International Longshoremen’s Association and the Cargill Corporation.
The gift bags are distributed between November 15 and January 15 every year. SCI has dropped off toiletry collection boxes at the APM Terminals, Maher and Port Newark Container Terminals and the Port Authority offices at Port Newark. Additionally, some toiletries were donated by H&M International.
Bethann Rooney, once a mariner herself, is assistant director of the Port Authority’s Port Department. She understands personally how difficult it is to be away from family during holidays.
“I can vividly remember my first Christmas at sea 29 years ago. I still have the hat and scarf that I received that year from our friends at SCI,” said Rooney. “A half a world away in the middle of the vast ocean I was missing my family dearly, but I was touched to know that strangers back home were thinking of us and grateful for the work we did to move cargo all over the world.”