This time of year is often referred to as a season of giving when the holidays inspire people to share with others.
Students and administrators at the San Jacinto College Maritime Technology and Training Center show this spirit as they volunteer to pack gifts for the Christmas at Sea program for the fourth year.
"Christmas at Sea is completely volunteer-driven," said Joanne Bartosik, Christmas at Sea manager. "Our partnership with San Jac is a match made in heaven."
Since 1898, the Christmas at Sea program, an extension of The Seamen's Church Institute, has distributed handmade knit and crocheted gifts to mariners. Last year, the program served 67 companies at 76 locations, providing gifts to 9,600 inland mariners. The program also reaches another 10,000 seafarers on the east coast.
"The hallmark of our program is the personalization," said Bartosik. "We never purchase knits from the store. Every gift is handmade, and for international seafarers, most arrive in a hand-sewn bag. Knitted gifts to U.S. mariners on boats are delivered in boxes containing handcrafted Christmas cards often created by school children."
Amy Arrowood, director of maritime credit programs at San Jac, received gifts from Christmas at Sea herself. In 2017, she learned the program needed help packing its handmade gifts and delivering them to maritime companies.
"This was an opportunity for my students to volunteer and give back to a program that brings joy to so many," Arrowood said.
The College's maritime students now have the packing process down to a science. Each year, they create an assembly line of boxing the handmade knits and cards and taping them shut. Arrowood also works with a chaplain who serves the Houston Ship Channel to deliver the packed boxes to marine companies.
"Our students have really run with the idea of organizing the packing day," Arrowood said. "It has turned into a leadership opportunity for our more senior students. They see the process each year and teach the newer students how it's done."
Bartosik appreciates San Jac students and knitters worldwide who volunteer their time. Knitters receive detailed patterns to complement the safety gear seafarers and mariners wear on their vessels. The "CAS Angels," an international group of experienced needleworkers, are also ready to help if anyone encounters a snag with a pattern.
"Without our network of volunteers, CAS wouldn't be where it is today. We are so grateful for the time everyone puts into creating knits, making Christmas cards, gathering donations, packing boxes, and so much more than our volunteers do each year," Bartosik said. "This program is our way of expressing gratitude to those seafarers and mariners who make our way of life possible."
The experience has come full circle for some San Jac maritime alumni who now work full time on the water and have received these gifts themselves.
"No one wants to be away from their family and friends at Christmas. When you are on a boat, it can be especially lonely," said Arrowood. "Receiving a gift someone took the time to create for you makes you feel a bit more connected."
To learn more about Christmas at Sea, visit seamenschurch.org/programs-services/christmas-at-sea/volunteer-opportunities.