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Parishes provide beachfront for international relations


For The Dialog


In a world bedeviled by terrorism and often focused on differences between nations, religions and peoples, a group of people along the Delmarva Peninsula’s Atlantic coastline are improving international relations one meal at a time.

They provide dinners for the International Student Outreach Program (ISOP), an organization that began at St. Mary Star of the Sea/Holy Savior Parish in Ocean City 18 years ago and expanded to Rehoboth Beach. The program is known for free weekly dinners for students who come to the United States each summer to fill seasonal jobs at the beaches.

“There’s a lot of conflict in the world, a lot of suffering, terrorism. Unfortunately, the negative seems to get more notice than the positive,” said Father William Cocco, pastor of St. Edmond’s in Rehoboth Beach, which hosted its first ISOP dinner this season on May 31. The dinners are “our small part of bringing the world together and realizing we’re all God’s children.”

Liz Wilkinson (center), an International Student Outreach Program volunteer, chats with foreign students Stanislav Tikov (left) from Russia, and Natasha Soldatenko from Ukraine, during a May 31 dinner at St. Edmond’s Church in Rehoboth Beach. (Gary Morton for The Dialog)

Liz Wilkinson (center), an International Student Outreach Program volunteer, chats with foreign students Stanislav Tikov (left) from Russia, and Natasha Soldatenko from Ukraine, during a May 31 dinner at St. Edmond’s Church in Rehoboth Beach. (Gary Morton for The Dialog)

Seventy-seven students from 14 countries attended the dinner, said Lynn Nellius, who coordinates dinners. St. Edmond’s is the only Catholic church among four churches in the Lewes-Rehoboth Beach area that provide weekly meals for international students. Last year, the parish hosted 1,784 student visits; in 2015, there were 1,402.

In the Ocean City area, meals are still offered at Holy Savior Church and other churches offer meals or gatherings, said Annemarie Conestabile, who heads the ISOP there. They include St. Luke and St. John Neumann Catholic churches and Bethany and Fenwick Methodist churches.

While Conestabile said demand for summer workers in the Ocean City area is up, fewer than 4,000 international students, down from last year, are expected this season because of higher visa denial rates in several countries and less available housing.

American embassies denying more visa applicants, Conestabile said, include those in Russia and Turkey, because of political situations, and in Ukraine, Bulgaria and Moldova, in part because of students who overstay their 16-week work visas.

Natasha Soldatenko from Ukraine said she went through “six months of denials because some students come here and stay.”

Filip Radivoce from Serbia agreed it was harder getting a visa this time. In 2015, when he worked in Maine, his interview lasted only a minute or two; “this time it took like 15 minutes. They asked me a lot of questions.”

The focus of ISOP is to provide a home-away-from-home atmosphere for the student workers. While the meals may be the most visible aspect of the program, they’re far from the only aspect.

“These days the focus is on safety programs and on cultural events,” Conestabile said. ISOP also provides bikes, linens and other items to students. A safety program in Rehoboth Beach includes bike safety in conjunction with Delaware State Police.

The program began when a small group of Polish students approached Conestabile and Father John Klevence, then pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea, after Mass at Holy Savior 18 years ago. When they arrived in Ocean City, their jobs had been given to others, they said, and they had no money for rent or food.

Father Klevence and Conestabile organized efforts to help those “stranded” students, and through them learned about the many foreign students in the area each summer and their needs. That’s what spawned ISOP.

Father Klevence, now pastor of St. Ann in Bethany Beach, hosts an annual barbecue, Conestabile said.

Besides the Delmarva Peninsula, the program has expanded to Virginia Beach, the Carolinas, and Branson, Mo., and soon will start on the West Coast, Conestabile said.

After nearly 20 years, the program remains much the same: bridging differences through personal acquaintance. That’s seen by the reactions of the 77 students attending the first St. Edmond’s dinner and the 40 or so volunteers working it.

“It’s a new experience,” Soldatenko said. “It’s very unusual for us in Ukraine to offer such a thing.”

Radivoce, from Serbia, called the dinner and related ISOP efforts “a big wow for me.” He thought he knew what to expect in American cuisine, but the Sloppy Joe was a first. “I like it.”

Elaine Kennedy, who with her husband Tim has worked the dinners from the start, said students seem surprised by American hospitality.

“When we first started, they would ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ They come to think of Americans as outgoing, friendly and helpful.”

She thinks the same of the students. “Every one of them, no matter what country they’re from, is so open and helpful.”

Theresa Tumini, who has made the drinks for the dinners since they began, recalled one example of how the dinners affect the students. Just before he was to return home, “a kid came up to me with tears in his eyes” to say he would never forget her and the dinners. “The kids really appreciate it.”

Cathy Cofrancesco, who coordinates the kitchen at St. Edmond’s, said all the meals are prepared from scratch, and include fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I’m giving back. I feel like my life has been very blessed,” she said. “These kids are far away from home. We can’t solve everything that comes up while they are here in this country, but we can provide them a home-cooked meal.”

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