Stories from Donors

In this section of our website, a few people share what they know about the work of the Institute and some of the reasons they support us—some with gifts of handknit items, others with their time, and others with their pocketbooks.

Through their diverse giving, they assist the world’s mariners in unique and valuable ways, joining a network of people from all over the world. Individual stories tell of our supporters’ remarkable dedication and of the important work they believe SCI does every day.

Want to share the reasons why you are involved with SCI? We would love to hear from you. Send a note to sci@seamenschurch.org

Blair & Brett VanBrunt
from Garner, NC

In 2009, just after celebrating their first wedding anniversary, Brett set sail for the Gulf of Mexico. The couple spent one of their first newlywed Christmases separated by miles of water. “[Christmas] is the most depressing time to be at sea,” said Blair. “You miss so much family and fun.”

As part of SCI’s Christmas at Sea volunteer gift giving program, Brett received a handknit hat this year. Although Brett would rather have been home for the holidays, Blair said that the gift made the challenging days a little less lonesome. “And,” she said, “it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Gulf was experiencing a really cold spell, and the crew needed those knitted goods! And we knew someone made that gift. We felt the love in it.”

Recounting their own experiences of SCI’s outreach over the years (Brett, working since age 18 on the water), Blair affirms why she and her family support SCI, “When no one else was there, SCI was … taking care of the sailors.”


 Jo Ellen Heil from Ventura, CA

When Californian Jo Ellen Heil and Minnesotan Susan McCoubrie peered through the back door at SCI’s Center in Paducah, KY, they never suspected that what they would discover inside would spark their enduring involvement with the Institute.

Jo Ellen still remembers that day almost ten years later. “Looking at the river bank, hearing the ripples on the water and reading about SCI, I marveled at the Institute’s history, ministry, and hopes for the future. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”

A passionate advocate for SCI, she taught herself to knit for Christmas at Sea, became a member of the Janet Lord Roper Legacy Giving Society and helped staff SCI’s booth at The Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention. Jo Ellen says that she and Susan continue to pray for SCI regularly. When we recently asked her why she is so keen on the Institute, she replied:

“Having met several staffers, particularly Ministry on the River folks, I’ve been impressed by their dedication and hard work. As a knitter, I revel in the fun I share with the Christmas at Sea community. Having taught Women’s History at the college level, I’ve always been inspired by the life of Janet Lord Roper [for whom SCI’s Legacy Giving Society is named]. But I suppose the deepest reason I give to SCI is that they help workers who are otherwise forgotten. Whether it is a grimy loading dock or a lovely river town, an international courtroom or a local church where believers pray, SCI is always there, reaching out, welcoming the weary, reflecting God’s love. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

Indeed, who wouldn’t?  


 Joe Pyne from Houston, TX

Joseph H. Pyne, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Kirby Corporation, a major inland tank barge operator in the United States, first learned about SCI from colleagues in the industry. Since that introduction, which involved discussions about inland training opportunities in Kirby’s corporate headquarters’ city, Houston, Joe has become an enthusiastic SCI supporter. He serves on SCI’s Development Committee, chairs SCI’s Houston Maritime Training Benefit Luncheon, and gives to SCI—both as a donor with Kirby Corporation (a member of SCI’s Supporting Sponsors Society) and out of his own pocket. 

Joe says he believes in SCI’s ministry, calling it a holistic approach. “It’s really beneficial for the towboat business to have access to clergy who know and understand the industry and educators who actively work for the professional development of the mariner.” 

Joe feels SCI complements what he and his company try to do. “We want our workforce to be a part of a community … well-trained and capable of addressing issues in times of crisis.” Because SCI plays such an important part in training and emergency response, Joe and his company see SCI as part of that community, too.


Samantha Smith from New York, NY

Samantha came on board serving as a member of SCI’s Young Friends, a group of new faces dedicated to advancing and supporting the Institute’s ministry to mariners. As a leader in that group, Samantha has spoken out on behalf of SCI and merchant mariners. This fall Samantha took the podium at SCI’s Pilot Boat Harbor Cruise, relaying her passion for our work and explaining why she remains an avid supporter of SCI.

“I am impressed with the evolution and changes I have seen over the last ten years—a new building in Port Newark, which strengthens the mission and brings services closer to seafarers; educational programs that allow SCI to raise standards in the industry; staff development; and humanitarian outreach … really, the whole mission of raising awareness of what seafarers do. Every facet of SCI works towards promoting seafarers. SCI gives critical support to a relatively unknown population that enriches our everyday lives. I encourage anyone even remotely interested in SCI to take a port tour/ship visit with a chaplain to witness the work firsthand.”


Norma Agatstein from New York, NY

In 2001, Norma retired from working as an administrator at New York University and went looking for a beneficial way to spend some of her new free time. After seeing a story in a local newspaper, she and her husband visited the headquarters of SCI’s volunteer knitting program Christmas at Sea. “When I saw the big wall of yarn and knitting,” she says, “I was hooked!”

Since teaming up as a volunteer with Christmas at Sea, she has become an essential part of the “Tuesday Ladies” group, the volunteer administrators of SCI’s Christmas gift distribution program. The Tuesday Ladies meet each week to tally donations of knitted items (making sure each one receives an acknowledgement), pack boxes and, of course, knit and crochet.

Because Norma volunteers at one of SCI’s home bases, she directly sees what she calls the Institute’s “terrific job of getting things from people on land to people on water.” She appreciates that something from her hands and from her pocketbook reaches people who really need it. “When I give to SCI,” she says, “I know there is a direct route between my donation and the actual services. I like that.”


Ethel Jimenez from San Francisco, CA

Sea fever runs deep.

Ethel Jimenez’s grandmother visited ships. So did her mother. All of this time working with mariners led Ethel’s mom to meet Ethel’s dad, Victor A. Jimenez, pictured here.

As a marine engineer, Ethel’s dad was called away on voyages for weeks at a time. The family missed him, and he missed them—a familiar refrain for mariners. Later, he switched to working aboard ships in port. This allowed him to stay on land to be with his family while continuing to use his skills and devotion to the sea. Growing up in Brooklyn, Ethel remembers the former SCI location near the South Street Seaport.

Twelve years ago, Ethel moved west, seduced by San Francisco. Through that change, though, Ethel continues to affirm her connection to the sea. Ethel says, “I give [to SCI] because my father spoke in glowing terms of the Institute and what its services mean to mariners.” She continues the family tradition of caring for mariners, knowing that her donation provides services for a new generation.


Jens Alers, Group Director at Bernhard Schulte Ship ManagementJens Alers from Bermuda

The SCI Mountain Challenge has inspired professionals from across the maritime industry to climb physical and fundraising heights on behalf of mariners. Jens Alers, Group Director at Bernhard Schulte Ship Management, made up part of a 2013 team that achieved Greatest Overall Philanthropy with a total of $16,810 supporting mariners served by SCI.

In the months leading up to the event, Jens’s colleagues at offices around the world set fundraising goals among the staff to help the Bernhard Schulte team excel. “This money came from everyone … from the heart of the group,” he says. Even the company’s CEO helped, chipping in and motivating others to donate up to the last minute.

Jens told us he felt drawn to support SCI’s mission because it fills a gap that professional services cannot always meet. “Even as the best employer, you can’t take care of everything,” he says. “You can pay well and take care of seafarers’ professional needs and aspirations, but you can’t necessarily touch their hearts or take care of their emotions. SCI is best trained to handle that. It’s nice to know that there are people coming on board just to be there and offer spiritual support.”