Houston Seafarers' Center

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Houston Seafarers' Center

Post by Scott Liebling on Mon Apr 03, 2017 10:42 am

From today's Houston Chronicle.


Tom Tellepsen II remembers the early days of Port Houston when crew members from around the world would gather to pray with a chaplain, unwind at the swimming pool or square off in soccer matches against crews of different ships.

"This place was just crawling with seafarers," the former board president of the Seafarers Center recalls. "This was like a YMCA."

But more than 40 yearsafter the center's opening, the crew members who travel from 70 countries for their jobs in oil, gas, automotive and a slew of other industries rarely linger for days anymore. Fewer sailors come through the port at all, and those who do stay for shorter periods, largely because of increased automation on the massive ships that fuel the economy of Houston and the world.

Still, the Houston International Seafarers' Center's two locations in Houston and La Porte remain places of solace and communion where crew members - often lonely and sometimes under stress - gather after a long day's work. Both centers serve about 5,000 seafarers a year, down dramatically from the almost 25,000 seafarers who visited annually two decades ago.

To adapt to the changing times, the Howard T. Tellepsen Center plans to move later this yearto a smaller venue with just a little over 8,000 square feet next to the Port of Houston Administration building.

"That is a sign of the times," Tellepsen said. "There are seafarers' centers that are double-wide trailers."

Crews face isolation

The center's six full-time chaplains represent the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Episcopalian denominations, among others. Their roles are all encompassing, requiring them to visit with seafarers and assist in many social services, including ship deaths, christenings and weddings. They even help crew members with logistical issues, like tracking down missing paychecks, if necessary.

Ultimately, Tom Edwards, a current chaplain, notes that their role is to provide a source of comfort for lonely seafarers who are often paid low wages and face long months away from their families. The isolation can lead to loneliness, depression and even suicide. Two confirmed suicides took place at Port Houston between summer 2015 and 2016.

"It's very much like a military deployment," Edwards said.

Entom Vijay, 36, who was a second officer for a ship visiting from India recently, said the separation from home can get to him and his crew members.

He sits around the table with other shipmates, as they all frequently check their cell phones and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi.

"We're missing everything," he notes during an event last month held at the center for seafarers in town.

But he said they adjust to it because he knows they're providing for their families, "It's a part of our life," he said.

Denricke Sevastiean, 22, works a nine-hour day shift inside his ship's kitchen. On his night off, he played a game of chess inside the center with fellow 25-year-old crew member Jessar Robles.

Both men are from the Philippines. Seafarers used to come mainly from Northern European countries, but there's been an influx from other countries because it costs less for ship owners and shipping companies. "The bottom line is how can they make a profit? They can hire crews from India and China for less," said Edwards.

Away from home

As crew members from India and the Philippines gathered inside the center on a night in January, they snacked on chips, cookies and other treats. Some Face Timed with family members across the globe. Others gathered around the couch to watch a basketball game on TV.

When the center was first established in 1968, it was the first ecumenical center of its kind with chaplains from different denominations. Faith leaders representing Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist backgrounds set out to create the center with help from Tellepsen's father, Howard T. Tellepsen, who became the center's namesake. The elder Tellepsen served as the chairman of the Port Commission for 14 years beginning in 1956 and his family construction company began building the center in 1971.

It receives its funding in various ways including their annual Maritime Gala, foundations and from ships visiting Port Houston.

Despite the changes in crew size and technology, Edwards notes that the center's original purpose still remains. "It's your family away from home," he said.

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Scott Liebling

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