At the turn of the century, Anne Marie Conestabile worked with Father John Klevence to set up a program to help with the influx of foreign students into the Ocean City, Md., area, where they would work during the summer season. Little did she know what that would become over the next nearly quarter century.
“We had a ministry set up for all the international students, and it’s been going on and growing and growing and growing,” Conestabile said last week.
When the International Student Outreach Program began, Conestabile was the youth minister at St. Mary Star of the Sea and its mission church, Holy Savior, at the southern end of Ocean City. She moved on to United Work and Travel, although she worked out of Holy Savior. Conestabile is retiring Sept. 2, although she will remain involved as a volunteer.
“It’s been a passion and always been a passion,” she said. “This has been the most wonderful thing I could have ever imagined. It will be sad to let it go, but I know it’s time. Changes are good.”
The current pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea/Holy Savior, Father John Solomon, said the ISOP has been a good way for the foreign students to experience American culture and that of all the countries that are represented each summer. The benefits extend to the parish as well.
“As much as we give to them, we are getting so much more just in terms of interacting with them. It’s been just a beautiful program,” he said.
“It’s a testament to a lot of hard work, and Anne Marie, along with Father Klevence, really helped to spearhead that.”
Conestabile recalls the beginnings of ISOP in 2000 when seven Polish students arrived at Holy Savior “begging for help.” The program helps with practical things such as housing, legal assistance and medical care, but also with the homesickness that comes with being halfway around the world.
On July 19, Holy Savior hosted Christmas in July for the students. Amid decorations of red and green, the students sat down for a meal, had photos taken with Santa Claus and received a gift.
The importance of the students from Rehoboth Beach to Ocean City is hard to overstate. Their numbers dwindled the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, and businesses faced labor shortages.
“With COVID, we all got hit,” Conestabile said. “There is no way that this town could operate without the assistance of the international students. Americans do not want to be housekeepers, they do not want to be in the kitchen somewhere.”
For the foreign students, however, work experience in the United States is a valuable addition to their resumes. It shows they have experienced American culture and way of life. They also appreciate the way Americans work and make money, have fun, etc. Conestabile said it is heartening to see these young people who want to be in the United States and do not take our way of life for granted.
Conestabile, 72, arrived in Ocean City from New York, where she was a teacher. But she was born in Italy, and she will be spending several months in her homeland with extended family. She will be back in Ocean City and doing some volunteer work, but she wants to recharge first.
“I have to just let go and relax a little. If I do it here, I would never relax. It would be nice to just go somewhere and just relax,” she said.
“It’s time, and it’s been good to me.”
Father Solomon noted that Conestabile is very involved in the parish, where she is a eucharistic minister. He is looking forward to her return after her break in Italy, “which sounds lovely,” he said.
“She certainly will be back, and I think we’re going to see her a lot more, being involved. She likes to stay active,” he said.
Travel is something that Conestabile is used to, both locally and beyond. The late Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli had her speak at all of the parishes in the diocese, and she also went into New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Her work caught the eye of the United States Department of State, and the federal government invited her to talk about the International Student Outreach Program up and down the East Coast.
“I was able to go and set up a model, all the way down to the panhandle in Florida,” she said. “Once the Dept. of State got involved, then the whole country got informed. This program runs all over the United States.”
She also has been to conferences all over the world.
“I’ve been really blessed, very, very blessed.”