Boothbay Harbor Congregational Church held its first farewell evening to the region’s international workers Sept. 12. Ten years since the start of the Work and Travel Program, the church’s parishioners wanted to know what worked and did not work for the guests upon arrival and during their stay. This year’s students hailed from Turkey, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and beyond.
Parishioner Dr. Barclay Shepard said that through his involvement with the welcome crew, he has seen hundreds of workers come through to keep local businesses staffed and ready to serve area visitors in the summer months. He said the program has had as many as 40 workers in one season and this year’s welcome dinner greeted about 30.
The Work and Travel Program is run through the U.S. State Department which issues J1 visas to international students or recent graduates 18-30 years old, said Shepard. With agencies all over the world connecting students to employers, many of the U.S.’s tourism-driven communities rely on the extra help, and the students get an American experience through the workplace for three months and round out their cultural experience with a month of travel.
“These agencies correspond with State Department agencies all over the U.S. to coordinate the contact between students in various countries around the world with … employers asking if they need workers,” Shepard said. “This is particularly important in a town like Boothbay Harbor which has a big summer population and really depends on these fine students.”
Reverend Todd Weir said he enjoys the Church’s role in making the students feel welcome because it is an important part of everyone’s faith; to send the students off with a farewell is equally important because it helps everyone understand the strengths and gaps of the Church’s stewardship.
“Sometimes we hear about people running into some problems and they don't know who to turn to. At least they know who they can call in order to make some connections with people … They're in a difficult spot 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 a police officer in to talk to them and just help people get a sense of there's somebody here you can reach out to, that we can connect them with a social service agency or whatever they need.”
Urged on by parishioner Alice Mutch, the students all agreed the greatest shortcoming from their welcoming was a comprehensive list of places to visit during their off-time. Despite getting a Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce map in the beginning, they were not told about some of the region's hidden gems, some of which are in walking or biking distance, like Ocean Point, Barrett's Park, the movie theater and trails, they said.
The students said their experience with locals and visitors alike were very positive, patient and friendly. A dog-walking side-hustle started after Romanian students noticed a special affinity for the region’s four-legged friends. Another student said they learned Americans and their government are two separate things.
Most students are either timing out with the program or will move onto other places next year, but some said they will return in upcoming summers as they plan around their studies.