The Mission to Seafarers Southern Ontario is sending out an SOS – for volunteers.
As the shipping season prepares to get underway in late March or early April, the mission needs volunteers for its stations in Oshawa, Toronto and Hamilton.
“Our people were doing double and triple duty at the Oshawa mission last season because ships were coming in so frequently,” says the Rev. Judith Alltree, the mission’s executive director and senior port chaplain. “It was great for the seafarers, but we’re going to need a lot more people.”
The mission opened the Terry Finlay Seafarers Centre in the Port of Oshawa in June 2017 and it has been busy ever since, she says. The station was named after the late Archbishop Terence Finlay, a former diocesan bishop of Toronto and a long-time supporter and advocate of seafarers.
She says volunteers serve in a number of ways. Some are trained to go on the ships to visit the crews. Others staff the stations, making sure they’re open and hot coffee and free WiFi is ready for the seafarers when they come off the boats. Others drive the seafarers into town so they can shop and do some banking if necessary.
Most importantly, the volunteers are there to listen to the seafarers and help out when necessary. “That’s a really important aspect of our mission work – actively listening to what’s going on in the lives of these folks,” says Ms. Alltree. “They’re really grateful for that. It’s very touching.”
There are about seven active volunteers at the Oshawa station but that needs to increase to about 12 to keep up with the demand, she says. The mission is open from 3-9 p.m. during shipping season and volunteers regularly work in three-hour shifts.
Volunteers are also needed at the Toronto mission, which is moving from its former building on Pier 51 to new space in PortsToronto’s Cruise Ship Terminal, formerly the International Passenger Terminal, also located on Pier 51.
Ms. Alltree says the mission’s board of directors decided to make the move after determining that the old building was too costly to maintain and needed extensive repairs. The number of seafarers visiting it had dropped by about 90 per cent, she says.
The mission, which relies entirely on donations and grants, was unable to sell or move the building and the decision was made to demolish it. During a cold snap on Jan. 30, frozen water pipes led to a flood, making the building uninhabitable. It was torn down in February.
“It was an iconic building, but we have a moral obligation to the people who support the mission with their donations and financial sacrifices to steward those resources in the best way we can,” she says. “Like many charities, we’ve seen a drop in our donations and we’re working hard to rebuild relations and resources. When we looked at what it cost us to operate the building and how it was being used, we had to make the right decision, and I believe we have.”
Ms. Alltree says the mission’s new space in the Cruise Ship Terminal will be ideally situated to serve the cruise ships, especially their crews. Toronto is becoming a major destination and point of departure for cruise ships on the Great Lakes, with about 43 dockings expected this summer.
“Crews on cruise ships are here for hours, not days,” she explains. “They’re not always treated well, and they usually need to make connections with chaplains when they’re here. The office building will be right at the foot of the gangway.”
More cargo vessels are also expected to dock at Pier 51 this summer, creating a need for volunteers who will visit the crews and drive them to shops and services in the city. “Shipping is coming back to the city, which is very exciting, but we’re going to need people to help out,” she says.
The Mission to Seafarers Southern Ontario was formed in 2014 when the individual missions in Oshawa, Toronto and Hamilton amalgamated. “We’re stronger together because of the connections between the three,” says Ms. Alltree. “They’ve all grown and the need for the mission is greater than ever in all three places.”
This spring, the mission is rolling out a new program called “Critical Incident Crisis Management” in the Oshawa and Toronto ports. If a traumatic event happens, Ms. Alltree or a member of her team will visit the location as soon as possible to provide counselling and follow-up support to those affected. “We want to ensure that the person’s post traumatic stress response does not turn into post traumatic stress disorder,” she says. The mission began the program last October in Hamilton and it has proven to be successful.
Ms. Alltree thanks the mission’s supporters in the Diocese of Toronto. “I thank the people who continue to care about us,” she says. “We look at every donation as generosity from people who care, and the seafarers are so grateful, especially when they come into a cold port and there’s a warm welcome.”