2017-09-14 / Around Town

Seamen’s Church Institute Preps for the Long Haul

Conversation with Rebecca Northup
By Brooke Constance White

Rebecca Northup is championing the missions of the Seamen's Church Institute and keeping it relevant with today's waterfront needs. Rebecca Northup is championing the missions of the Seamen's Church Institute and keeping it relevant with today's waterfront needs. It’s no secret that Newport’s waterfront has evolved over the last 90 years. For an organization like the Seamen’s Church Institute, that means ensuring their mission stays relevant and meets the needs of the community. When the nonprofit was founded in 1919, Newport’s harbor looked starkly different from today, according to Rebecca Northup, the institute’s superintendent. Captains arrived from far-flung countries and stayed for months on end, she said. At that time, no women were allowed in the institute, dorm-style housing comprised the upstairs, and the building had a sort of clubhouse feel to it.

Things have changed since then, so for the past few months the organization’s board has been asking itself some hard questions to ensure they stay relevant in order to be a sustainable nonprofit for years to come. Newport This Week recently caught up with Northup to learn what’s changing at the Seamen’s Church Institute, what’s staying, and what adjustments are being made.

What topics have your staff and the board been discussing during this process to make sure the organization meets community needs?

We looked at our programs and wanted to figure out if we need to cut back or do something different. We have our lodging program, which is open to the public and provides affordable rooms to yacht crew, students in maritime courses, and those in need when it doesn’t present a safety concern. We provide meeting space for nonprofits and have a community meal program where we serve about 40-70 people every month. There’s also a Basic Needs program where we offer items to those in need.

What areas did the Seamen’s Church Institute decide it needed to expand into?

We started having conversations with other social-service organizations and realized there’s a need for middle school-aged students to have access to the waterfront and participate in additional education-enrichment activities, particularly in the area of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math). In Newport, our fourth-graders are taking sailing lessons, third grade is working with Save the Bay and second grade is taking swim lessons, so there’s great stuff for elementary age students but not for middle-schoolers.

So how is the Institute going to meet that need in Newport?

We’re opening what we’re calling the Discovery Deck in the early spring of 2018. Grades five and six will be coming here on field trips and the deck itself will have interactive opportunities for the kids to do hands-on activities and exploration related to the maritime industry, recreation and environmental concerns of Narragansett Bay and Newport. We thought that all those themes are at the heart of our mission because we want to continue the heritage that Seamen’s has had. We’re not trying to change directions, we’re just trying to stay relevant and naturally evolve our traditional maritime mission.

Will you be partnering with other nonprofits in this new endeavor?

Yes, we will be working with other partners who don’t have a storefront or means to reach a younger audience … on things like content, for example. Save the Bay and Rhode Island PBS have donated a series to use called “Life on the Bay” that will expose kids to careers that are available to them. A lot of kids don’t think the waterfront pertains to them but it really is rich in opportunities for employment.

Sounds exciting. What stage of the process are you in with the Discovery Deck?

We’re in the midst of gaining our donor support and letting people know what we’re doing. Our push right now is with grant writing and fundraising. We’re dreaming big for a high-tech interactive pilot simulator and underwater robot that the kids can manipulate and operate, but it will all depend on our funding.

So it sounds like this is a way for Seamen’s to be relevant for years to come.

Yes, although we have taken a good look at everything we’re doing, we’re not making a huge shift, but rather just rethinking how to implement the mission we have. We want to position ourselves well for the future. It’s difficult to ask the hard questions about whether or not you’re really fulfilling your mission to the best of your ability when you’ve been doing it for so long. We want to stay relevant and insure the success of our organization in the future.

SCI Happenings

Seamen's Church Institute offers a monthly speaker series. Recently, the dean of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island spoke on "Green Boats and Blue Waters." The October speaker will be Brad Read of Sail Newport. The lecture will be Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. in the Mariner's Lounge.

The 8 Bells Lecture Series also calls Seamen's home. The next talk on Thursday, Oct. 5 will be given by Chipp Reid, a licensed ship captain, author of "Intrepid Sailors," and an award-winning reporter.

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