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A Friend in Town


On most days, he's part of a crew that makes its way along a vast swath of currents in a cargo-filled steel leviathan, and like most seafarers, he helps pacify the world's quenchless appetite for stuff. But on Monday, Philip Salvador found himself on dry land, Baltimore's Fort McHenry Yard, which meant it was once again time to go from missing his wife to searching for what she asked him to bring home.

There was no way he could make the request a Christmas present, for Salvador was not due to return to the Philippines until June. Still, Kathleen was specific, and on Monday, her husband's search appeared to have struck good fortune.

His ship, the Norwegian-based Star Dieppe, had docked next to the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center, an ecumenical Christian ministry dedicated to providing assistance and support to seafarers who visit the port of Baltimore.

Salvador and crewmate Lawrence Cristomo visited the center as its assistant director, the Rev. Mary Davisson, was about to head to Dundalk Marine Terminal in a 15-passenger van to pick up seafarers from Taiwan and take them to a shopping center.

She obliged their request to come along, and moments later Salvador let the good reverend in on his quest.

"Do you know," he asked, "where I can get Victoria's Secret?"

Davisson said she once viewed shopping as a frivolous chore. Her attitude changed after joining the center and giving rides to seafarers - many of whom hail from impoverished backgrounds. After spending months on ships, they come to shore with salary in hand and someone else in mind, hoping to find a keepsake to make the long wait before they go home less stressful.

Yet theirs is a world virtually unknown beyond their borders. "Unless you live in abject poverty, you're participating in the global economy," Davisson said. But shopping, she said, "is a very different thing for these guys."

The buying public is fortunate that heavy hearts do not weigh down vessels, because then their cargo might never leave the point of origin, the gap between manufacture and purchase would go unlinked and your holiday shopping experience might conjure up images of the chariot race scene from Ben Hur.

Those who help keep your favorite stores stocked are the world's invisible couriers, men and women who spend as many as nine months at sea traveling from port to port delivering everything from appliances to lumber to autos to computers to perishables.

They perform their tasks while battling periods of loneliness and separation anxiety, often sailing without access to a phone or the Internet or a post office.

"It gets very lonesome on the ship, especially this time of year when you're away from family," said Roden Apostol, chief officer of the Star Dieppe, who is married and has three children. "It's very important hearing the voices of your family. When you're away this much, it's a good consolation."

Often when they reach shore and are eager to shop, immigration issues or work make it impossible to leave the ship. Some go months without restocking on toiletries; many who hail from countries with year-round warm weather must bear months in colder climes without warm clothing.

The Baltimore International Seafarers' Center has addressed those and other concerns since 1992, when Brother Ed Munro, its director, pursued a calling to ministry and left his job as a Fairfax County, Va., firefighter after 25 years.

It was while serving as a deacon at the Church of the Redemption in Locust Point that he began thinking about a ministry devoted to seafarers, having met crew members while on a family cruise to the Caribbean.

"I decided to start out on my own and it's worked out well," he added. "I started out just visiting ships in my car. Then the Maryland Port Administration gave us an office, and I got a grant from the International Transport Workers' Federation."

The group receives funding from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, shipping companies and private donors. And seven years ago, the center began working with the Lutheran Women of the Delaware-Maryland Synod to offer gifts. Other groups - including several Episcopal, Baptist and Catholic churches - joined in, and together they now give 800 to 1,000 presents each year.

"We start the day after Thanksgiving, and if we have enough we give through Epiphany [beginning Jan. 6]," Munro said. "We try to give gifts to one ship each day."

Maryland Port Administration spokesman J.B. Hanson said that the port of Baltimore is the busiest port in the United States in the import and export of automobiles among other categories of cargo.

Although the ships that dock at Baltimore's ports may come from more than 100 countries, Munro said, 75 percent of the crew are from the Philippines.

Many seafarers who come here depend on the Seafarers' Center, whose office lobby has a canteen that offers such items as soap and stuffed animals. The center also has a game room, a chapel and a computer center.

Moreover, the canteen sells prepaid phone cards, undoubtedly its most popular item.

"The first thing anyone wants to do when they get here is contact their family," said Munro.

Shopping is also important. And thanks to the center, seafarers who come to Baltimore are quite familiar with local malls. Yet for many who have established rapport with the center's members, seeing a familiar face is just as important.

"It's like family," said Bo Hamilton of Sweden, captain of the Swedish-based Atlantic Companion ship. "We know each other, and we really appreciate their assistance."

Davisson, who is slated to take over for the retiring Munro as director of the center next month, began working at the facility Aug. 23. Eight days later, she received a call that a stowaway had been captured aboard a ship from the Dominican Republic.

"I went to the ship and apparently there were four people who got on the boat when it left the Dominican Republic but the rest were caught," she said. "But this one man, he managed to hide for six days."

By the time Davisson arrived, officials from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services were aboard. She took the stowaway a change of clothing and toiletries and subsequently was left with the arduous task of reaching his family, who thought their relative had been imprisoned. (He wasn't, and was taken back to the Dominican Republic on the ship.)

Most days aren't that eventful, but no two are the same. Yet the work seems to suit Davisson, who like Munro has a warm, gentle demeanor that makes it easy for foreigners, many of whom know little English, to feel at ease.

Davisson can empathize with being away from family. Her daughter Emily's cerebral palsy was diagnosed when she was 7 months old. Later, her scoliosis and mental retardation were diagnosed. At age 7, when her condition deteriorated to where her parents could no longer provide her with adequate care, Emily Davisson was placed in a residential care facility.

That was 16 years ago.

"Everyone has separation issues, we all do," said Mary Davisson. "But I think I experience that in a somewhat unusual way."

Davisson has become someone to whom seafarers can bring their personal concerns.

Most often she hears from a father despondent after calling home because his young child is so angry about his absence that he refuses to come to the phone.

"Some of them call after months at sea," she said, "and because of the time difference, it's the early morning hours at home and their spouses are not too willing to get their children up out of bed on a school night."

Last week, Davisson visited a seafarer who was injured on a ship and subsequently taken to Bayview Medical Center.

"It was a Chinese crew, and the captain was trying to tell me what happened but spoke very little English," she said.

Davisson then found someone who spoke fluent English and Chinese - a tenant of two center volunteers who own apartments - and took him with her to the hospital.

The three spent several moments figuring the correct international dialing codes. After three failed attempts, they managed to reach the seafarer's home.

"He was so appreciative that we were willing to try to contact them," she said. Although the family was not home when the call finally went through.

"The most touching gift of this job is the trust that comes from people who, in many cases, have never seen us before."

On Monday, Davisson dropped off nine seafarers at the Wal-Mart in Port Covington, giving them a chance to purchase the kind of items they drop off at ports all year.

Meanwhile, she told Salvador that they didn't have time to go to a mall where he could end his search, since his shore leave was only a few hours; his ship was off to Savannah, Ga., the next day, then on to Mobile, Ala.

Cristomo, who was also looking for gifts for his wife, consoled his crew mate.

"Maybe," he said, "they have Victoria's Secret in Alabama."

Davisson seemed equally disappointed that she could not assist Salvador further. For him, however, the ride was plenty; as he disembarked, he smiled and thanked her for the ride then joined the others.

"You realize," she said, "how small you are and how big God is when you do this work."

If you would like to donate to or request more information about the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center, call 410-685-1240.

Spirit of Sharing

The Sun's annual Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign raises money to help needy families in the Baltimore area during the holidays.

The campaign, administered by Baltimore Sun Charities, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, runs through December. For every $1 contributed, the foundation will contribute another 50 cents (up to $150,000). Administrative costs are covered, so all money raised will be distributed to those in need.

Donations are tax-deductible.

To donate, send a check to Baltimore Sun Charities, c/o Public Affairs, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Call: 800-508-2851.

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