In the 1980s, a Spanish seminarian named Mother María Jimenez recognized that the job of crewing a ship could be particularly stressful and isolating.
Every week, thousands of these 'seafarers' pass through South Florida’s ports. They work on the same ships that bring clothes and computers and gasoline and all the things that make modern life modern.
Many don’t have a visa to enter the U.S. - so they can’t leave the port.
Jimenez wanted them to have their own place at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. So, she created the Seafarers’ House.
It’s a pair of cozy white-and-blue buildings that lie behind a chain-link fence at the port. The fence is clad with faded flags from all different countries.
The larger of the two building is called the “casa.” It’s a convenience store, internet cafe, bank, lounge, and church rolled into one.
“This place is so helpful,” says Panamanian seafarer Ramon Castillo, 25, who’s finishing up with the cashier.
Castillo works on one of the many cargo ships doing perpetual laps around the Caribbean. Because of its location, Port Everglades is a key U.S. stop on the route.
“It’s always the same: from here, around the Caribbean, then back here,” says Castillo. “We come here every 15 days.”
And every time, he drops by the Seafarers House — to use the wifi to connect with family and friends, stock up on a few things, and talk shop with other seafarers about the stresses of the job.
“Today, I’m sending money to my family,” Castillo says, “and buying electronics.”
At the top of many seafarers’ lists of things to buy are electronic gadgets, because they're cheaper here than in many countries. The second building of the pair is stuffed with an array of cell phones, earbuds and Bluetooth speaker sets.
The convenience store is stocked with the comforts of home, wherever that may be: spicy prawn crackers, squid chips, crispy seaweed strips. But the top sellers are those staples of universal thrift: instant noodles and water.
For more than 25 years, seafarers have found refuge here, according to Senior Port Chaplain Father Sandford Sears, better known as “Father Sandy.”
“It's a safe haven for all seafarers as they come into Port Everglades,” Sears says. “They have a place to rest. They come in here for counseling if they need it. And we have church services also.”
Many seafarers are away from loved ones for up to six months at a time. Often they send all the money they earn home to family.
"They will do without so their families can take care of themselves,” he says.
"They miss their families,” he adds. “Oftentimes, children are born while they are away. Children grow up. And other times, family members die. And, they don't know about it until they come here. We reach out to them and make sure that they're taken care of.
Sears says he has noticed changes in the seafaring community over the many years he’s been their chaplain. Whereas most seafarers used to be men, now he's beginning to see more women serving as deckhands and engineers.
Many end up "moving right up the ladder to captain their own ship," he says.
The Seafarers’ house is open seven days a week. Because ships are always coming and going.
“Most of the time they're in here for maybe three, four hours and they're out again,” says Sears. “They're seeing South Florida right here in the port. They come in here for a little rest and respite. So we provide that for them.”
Seafarers House is raising money to build a new facility at Port Everglades. To find out more, visit seafarershouse.org.