By AMANDA GREENE
The International Seamen’s Center inside the State Port is seriously showing its age.
With many of its upper windows boarded up and a few missing siding panels that now harbor a young bird family, the faded gray center built in the 1940s looks like the fighter who lost the fight.
Cargo trains rumble by 100 feet away, rattling the few downstairs windows left inside the center. That’s where the 30-year-old ministry served about 3,000 sailors last year – selling phone cards, providing Internet and phone service, a game room, reading material, Bibles, puzzles and religious counseling and prayer services.
A partially-completed 1,000-piece Big Ben puzzle sits on a card table in the center’s library waiting for sailors from all over the world to place a piece here or there.
At least for now. In January, the center’s board voted to begin the process of moving outside of Wilmington’s port. At their upcoming April board meeting, they’ll decide how to raise the money to move through fundraising, grants and help from the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
“It’s time for us to pull up our bootstraps and take care of our future,” said board president Ron Casterline, “because we have not done that over the years.”
The Seamen’s Center is looking to rent or buy a building near to the port. But because the port hasn’t charged them rent in the last 30 years, the ministry existed on donations from 125 area churches and has few saved resources.
Though he said the move was needed, Wilmington-based ITWF inspector Tony Sacco said funding from his organization could take a while.
“With the economy the way it is, the grant system has been kind of slow. Some grants are taking a year or year and a half to get,” he said.
The ministry is also searching for help from local churches and corporations.
“We’re looking for corporate sponsorships from those who see our center benefiting the local economy,” he said, adding that sailors spend about $100,000 shopping in Wilmington each year. This month, a Chinese crew at the port bought several computers at Best Buy to take back to their families, he said.
In the port’s ship-building heydays of the 1940’s, the current building was called the Fireman’s Building. The Seamen’s Center started in a trailer in 1968 and moved to its current location in 1981. It was recognized then as one of the only Seamen’s Centers in the world to offer bicycles to its sailors to explore the area.
The center is run by mostly volunteers and Chaplain Ritchie Wammack who all must have the new Transportation Workers Identification Card (TWIC) to drive in and out of the port taking sailors shopping at Best Buy or Walmart. Each card costs $129.
Volunteer chaplain Mel Atento believes the move would allow more volunteers to lighten the workload when ships come to port.
“But if we’re outside (the port), 60-70 percent of your volunteers don’t have to have TWIC because they will just be at the center,” he said. “I think there’s more possibilities of the community getting involved in the ministry is outside the port.”
TWIC access in the last few years has made it harder for churches who wanted to drop off clothing donations to the center, Casterline added.
The board has already started touring possible locations including the former U.S. Custom’s building around the corner from the port, a vacant church building on Carolina Beach Road and even a warehouse space.
“I pray that God will provide the right place close to the port and will provide the funds to do it,” Atento added. “It opens the possibility of recruiting more college or high school students to volunteer there. When you’re inside the port, there’s limitations to what they can do.”