LONG BEACH >> Most days, Ajith Pushpakumara is far from home.
The Sri Lankan electrical engineer and father of two daughters, 11 and 13, is a crew member on a container vessel, traveling six months at a time for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd.
While he enjoys the work, it is tough and solitary. It takes him to unfamiliar territory with only a few days on solid ground before heading to the next port.
So when he comes to the Port of Long Beach, he looks for something familiar — more specifically, the vans that take him to the International Seafarers Center of Long Beach/Los Angeles.
“Nobody will welcome us except for places like this,” he said. “If we know there’s a Seafarers Center, we can just walk in because they always welcome us. When we go to some other country, we are strangers there. The Seafarers Center is the place to go.”
It’s easy to overlook the one-story, sky-blue building that sits on Pico Avenue, a busy artery for the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, but the longtime center is a beacon for the more than 100,000 seafarers who crew ships that drop anchor at the twin ports each year.
“This is a home away from home for seafarers — they can connect to people and stretch their legs,” said Sam Chauhan, a pastor and chaplain with the Lutheran Maritime Ministry. “The Seafarers Center is very important because the sailors consider the service a lifeline.”
The center, which started in a trailer bus more than 30 years ago before moving into its current building, is humble but homey. The place is decorated with photographs of container ships and gifts given by sailors who have visited the center, including a wooden elephant whittled by a seafarer while he passed the time at sea.
From 3 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, there’s a rotation of seafarers from India, China, Russia, Bulgaria and other nations who roll through the center, playing pool or ping pong, watching sports on T.V., talking to family on Skype or cooking meals that remind them of home in the center’s small kitchen.
There is a fellowship hall filled with Bibles and religious hymns in Tagalog, Korean, Chinese and other languages, a small chapel for services and a room for a pastor to offer spiritual counseling.
Neighbors Pat Pettit and Merry Jo Dickey run the center and are the familiar faces who greet seafarers when they pick them up from the ships.
“They all call me Mom.” said Pettit, who has been volunteering at the center since 1984. “Where else can I be around a lot of nice-looking guys every day and they love and appreciate me? This is what I was meant to do and I’m comfortable with it. Over the years, I’ve met a lot of nice people and I’ve been able to help people.”
Dickey said they meet seafarers whose children are grown up and are now seafarers themselves.
The Center relies on donations to remain in operations. They are always in need of funds to continue upgrading the facilities, internet connectivity, showers/bathrooms, etc.
“It’s the small things we take for granted,” Dickey said. “Sometimes it’s cookies and coffee on a cold day. If we get them homemade, it’s even better. It just brightens their day.”
For more information or to donate, visit www.iscpolb-la.org.