International Seafarer’s Center Provides Anchor of Support in the Port

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Merry Jo Dickey (L) and Pat Pettit (R) bring a personal touch to their jobs running the International Seafarers Center. Photos by Matt Cohn.

The 100,000 seafarers from all over the world who visit the Port of Long Beach every year spend their workdays keeping the mega-billion dollar international shipping industry afloat–but who keeps them going when they step off their ship for a brief interval of shore leave?

This is a question the good folks at the International Seafarers Center (ISC) work hard to answer daily.  

“We provide spiritual and physical nourishment,” says Vondi Forrester, a sailor’s granddaughter who serves as Vice President and Secretary of the ISC.

From its humble and homey headquarters at 120 South Pico Avenue, just west of Downtown Long Beach, the nonprofit has been hosting and helping seafaring men and women for over 30 years, offering simple amenities like TV, ping pong, a small general store and a library of free-for-the-taking books and magazines. The ISC also maintains a non-denominational chapel filled with inspirational CDs and literature in a trans-global assortment of languages.  

The ISC offers free Wi-Fi and computer equipment–crucial amenities for visiting seafarers. Internet use aboard ship is very expensive and usually extremely limited, so the ISC offers a coveted chance for sea crews to connect with their loved ones in a relatively relaxed setting.  

Almost continuously, starting at 3PM daily, the ISC’s three-van fleet transports visiting seafarers from their ships to the Center, to the Downtown Western Union where many paychecks get wired home, or to the local department stores, where they can stock up on goods for the next trip to sea.

ISC 009Time and budget permitting, seafarers will make trips to tourist destinations like Universal Studios or Disneyland, but shore leaves are not leisurely vacations. In today’s ultra-efficient international shipping trade, shore leaves are very brief–and sometimes crews don’t even leave the ship while it is anchored in Long Beach. 

Merry Jo Dickey has seen a big change in the nature of shore leaves during her 22-year career working for the ISC. “When I first started,” she says, “ships would be in port for seven to ten days. Now, sometimes it’s seven to ten hours.” Often, if the chief of a vessel decides that important work must be done during a short turnaround, the ship’s crew must remain onboard. 

The ISC has found a way to reach out to all visiting crews, even the ship-bound ones, with its Christmas Shoebox program. Every December the ISC solicits donations from local merchants so it can put together thousands of gift boxes filled with essentials like toothpaste, socks and soap, along with holiday treats like candy and cologne. These boxes get distributed among all visiting ships, much to the delight of their far-from-home crews.  

“I try to get to know them–they’re like family to me,” says ISC Manager Pat Pettit of the seafarers she meets at the Center.

ISC 018Pettit, born into a seagoing family, has been with the ISC since it began out of a converted bus in the early ’80s, and can often be found behind the wheel of an ISC transport van, engaging in friendly, welcoming banter with her “boys and girls” from visiting ships.

“Where else could I be around a lot of nice-looking guys of every nationality, and they all love and need me?” says Pettit with a grin. She never asks for money after one of her shuttle runs, but inevitably a handful of cash will find its way into the front-seat cup holder, placed there by grateful seafarers.  

Pettit, her colleagues, and the ISC Board of Directors all have high hopes for increased funding so they can keep the van fleet in good repair, add to the comforts of the Center, and even maybe build a new Center. Each September the ISC hosts a major fundraiser, in which it honors corporate and private donors who have enabled it to improve its ability to provide for the recreational, personal and cultural needs of visiting seafarers. Donations of money, books and other items are appreciated year-round, of course. 

“It’s good that you’re getting the word out about this place,” a seafarer from the Philippines tells an ISC visitor. “What they do here is very valuable.”

With a charitable organization like the ISC working within it, the Port of Long Beach can count compassion among its finest exports. 

To learn more about the International Seafarers Center and donation opportunities there, please visit

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