A lifeline of support for seafarers’ families

The Mission’s Family Support Programme builds community resilience and offers holistic support

By Thomas O’Hare

The Mission to Seafarers provides welfare services to thousands of seafaring families across the globe. While our port chaplains are meeting seafarers on board, our family support teams are supporting their families back home. The Family Support Programme provides the loved ones of seafarers with a place to share concerns, seek guidance, and celebrate achievements. Whether it’s online though our CrewHelp service, or in-person through one of our Family Support Networks (FSN), the MtS is there to listen, support and empower.

In 2022, the Family Programme received thousands of online requests from seafarers and family members. In the Philippines alone 1,353 families contacted us. One such request came from a seafarer seeking support for himself and his daughter. Both were experiencing severe separation anxiety. Our family support team took time to listen to their problem and enrolled them onto the WeCare Social Wellbeing course. This provided father and daughter with coping strategies for anxiety and practical methods to manage their long-distance relationship. This is just one of many online inquiries that begin in strife and end with hope.

Our FSNs are active in two countries: the Philippines and India. In the Philippines, the network has grown from strength to strength since its formation in 2016. Organised by our team in Manila, it covers 14 communities, from Luzon in the North to Romblon in the centre and Bohol in the South. In India the family programme is centred in the port town of Tuticorin and covers 15 communities within the Southern region of Tamil Nadu region. While these two family support networks share a common purpose – bringing the families of seafarers together – they are unique in their approach to supporting and empowering people.

Philippines network

Established in 2016 through a partnership between MtS and the Philippine Independent Church, the FSN in the Philippines has grown from one community in Greater Manila to 14 communities across the archipelago. Over 380,000 Filipinos are employed in the international maritime industry, and they represent a diverse range of skillsets, from masters leading cargo vessels and able seamen operating ro-ro loading bays to entertainers on cruise ships and stewards on board super yachts. For many, the motivation for a career at sea is to provide for their family, now and in the future.

The FSN in the Philippines is built on the foundations of dedicated volunteers. These are members of the community who are connected to the maritime world. Take for instance Hon. Captain Maximo Garcia, a former seafarer and now volunteer president of the Talibon chapter, Bohol province. He says: “I want to be involved in MtS Philippines. Deep in my heart, I could relate to their mission because I was once a seaman who benefited from their kindness when I was aboard ships.”

It’s kindness that encapsulates the culture our volunteers create throughout the network. Many take time out of their profession to be volunteers and support families struggling with the realities of a long-distance relationship. Mrs Joanne is a volunteer program officer and wife of a seafarer in the Altavas chapter, Aklan province. “I love to help and serve others in need, especially those who have been a victim of not being treated well on the ship, and I also want to help people affected by calamities, especially seafarers’ families,” she says. “As a volunteer for a year at MtS Philippines, it feels good to help others.”

Through the dedication of volunteers like Capt Garcia and Mrs Joanne the FSN can provide holistic welfare services across the Philippines. Whether a group of volunteers would like to host a Sea Sunday celebration, or a community member needs emergency assistance, the MtS family support team is ready to listen, guide and empower.

In 2022, over 3,000 families joined events across our network. One such event was the Seafarers’ Appreciation Day, a joint venture between the Singapore Shipowners Club and the MtS in Manila. Attended by representatives of the Club as well as more than 150 seafarers and their families, the event recognised the hardships they had faced during the Covid-19 pandemic and celebrated their achievements. A rich variety of presentations were given, from talks on mental health and wellbeing at sea, to a panel discussion attended by serving seafarers to discuss life on board and on shore. It wasn’t all discussion though; the second half was packed with singing, dancing and a gift giving. After two years of uncertainty and hardship, our seafarers and their families knew the Club and the MtS was there for them, now and in the future.

Looking forward to 2023, the FSN in the Philippines has a packed calendar. Our volunteer teams will be brought together for an annual Leadership Training Course where they will learn skills that will support their community. Our members will be offered new courses, from financial wellbeing to suicide alertness, to build resilience in the challenges they may face.

India community

In 2020, at the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, restrictions prohibited our port chaplain from visiting ships in the port of Tuticorin. As India entered a lockdown, our team in Tuticorin were inundated with requests for assistance on shore as well as on board. Between May 2020 and December 2021, 3,133 families, representing over 19,000 people, across Tuticorin and the Tamil Nadu region, received essential aid through our Samaritans Fund. This included food, PPE, and vaccinations to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

During this time our team listened to and learned the needs of these communities. They all had three things in common. Firstly, they had strong connections to the sea. Over 80% of these communities worked within, or were supported by, a sea-based industry including fishing and merchant seafaring. Secondly, they had established local community institutions, including seafarer associations and village councils, that invited the MtS to provide welfare. And thirdly, they expressed a desire to join other communities and be a part of a formal FSN.

Now the MtS is making great strides to formalise an FSN in Tuticorin, India. I recently returned from India where the Mission successfully completed a baseline study of 15 communities who would like to join the Network.

Tuticorin has a wealth of seafarers and a rich history with the ocean. It was fascinating to see how each village and town had organised their own local seafarers’ association. They all demonstrated a belief in communal welfare – coming together to achieve their goals. The MtS hopes to provide the foundations for a network that brings these communities together and strengthens seafarers and their families in Tuticorin.

Seafaring challenges

India now provides 9.35% of the world’s seafarers, putting the country third in the global rankings. While seafaring offers greater security than the hand-to-mouth fishing that many com[1]munities are used to, it’s not without its challenges. Tuticorin and the Tamil Nadu state is renowned for its fishing heritage. However, as economies evolve, and fishing becomes less sustainable, young people look to seafaring as a career. While this provides opportunity, it can also cause strife. Young people seeking employment at sea are vulnerable to fraud. Many have expressed concerns over how they can identify the difference between a legitimate agent and a fraudulent one. Several young people the MtS met with had been scammed.

The FSN will help to address these issues, and others, by building the resilience of communities and ensuring they can access support in times of need. Communities are requesting support to deliver skills-based projects including IT literacy, English and Hindi literacy, sewing classes, and first aid courses. However, the FSN is about so much more. It’s about securing the future for families and helping them adapt to the changes in their local economy and in the maritime industry.

To help formalise the Network, the Mission has been working with a volunteer committee consisting of lawyers, local government workers and welfare officials who are well connected. As a result, in December 2022, several events were organised including a family day, a Christmas concert exclusively for women, and a celebration of the seafarers’ associations. Collectively over 500 seafarers and their families attended these events, providing a clear sign that the communities of Tuticorin are keen to get involved.

The MtS Family Support Programme enables families to feel together even when they are apart. It is a place for loved ones to celebrate their achievements and lament their struggles. It is a connecting point between a seafarer in another continent and a loved one managing life back home. Founded on volunteers and built by a passion to serve and support, the FSNs in the Philippines and India provide a safe space for families to grow. As Mrs Leilani, volunteer program officer and seafarer’s wife in the Romblon chapter, says: “When someone wholeheartedly says ‘thank you’ because you can help them, it is a big thing and gives us purpose.”

Thomas O’Hare is programme manager at the Mission. He can be contacted at [email protected].