Congo Church bids farewell to international workers

Boothbay Harbor Congregational Church hosted its first farewell evening for the region’s international workers on September 12. Ten years after the start of the Work and Travel program, Church parishioners wanted to know what worked and what didn’t work for guests upon arrival and during their stay. This year’s students came from Turkey, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and other countries.

parishioner dr Barclay Shepard said that through his involvement with the welcome team, he saw hundreds of workers drop by to staff local businesses and get ready to serve visitors from the area in the summer months. He said the program had up to 40 employees in one season and around 30 were welcomed at this year’s welcome dinner.

The work-and-travel program is operated by the U.S. Department of State, which issues J1 visas to international students or graduate students ages 18 to 30, Shepard said. With agencies around the world connecting students with employers, many of America’s tourism-driven communities rely on the extra help, and students gain three months of American workplace experience and round out their cultural experience with a month of travel.

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“These agencies correspond with State Department agencies across the US to coordinate student contact in different countries around the world with … employers asking if they need labor,” Shepard said. “That’s especially important in a town like Boothbay Harbor, which is very busy during the summer and really depends on these good students.”

Reverend Todd Weir said he enjoys the role of the church in making students feel welcome as it is an important part of everyone’s faith; Sending farewells to students is also important because it helps everyone understand the strengths and gaps in the stewardship of the Church.

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“Sometimes we hear from people who run into problems and don’t know who to turn to. At least they know who to call to socialize… You are in a difficult situation in a foreign country and how do you know who to talk to? How do you know if it’s safe to call the police or not? So we brought in a police officer to talk to them and just to help people get a sense that there is someone here to turn to, that we can provide them with social services or whatever they need , can connect.”

At the urging of parishioner Alice Mutch, all students agreed that the main lack of their welcome was a comprehensive list of places to visit in their free time. Although initially given a map of the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce, they were not informed of some of the area’s hidden gems, some of which are within walking or biking distance, such as Ocean Point, Barrett’s Park, the movie theater, and hiking trails said.

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The students said their experience with locals and visitors alike was very positive, patient and friendly. A dog hike began after Romanian students noticed a special affinity for the region’s four-legged friends. Another student said they learned that Americans and their government are two different things.

Most students are either timed out with the program or will be moving to other locations next year, but some said they will return in the coming summers as they plan their studies.

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