Some visitors to the area may pass by St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Bethany Beach and think it’s a sleepy little parish. But don’t be deceived — St. Martha’s is doing big things.
Last week, the church welcomed about 100 J-1 visa foreign student-workers from around the world — including Russian, Serbia, China, Romania, Kazakhstan and Turkey — who will be working in and around Bethany Beach for the summer, offering up the local hospitality with a picnic that looked more like a feast, as well as a great deal of fellowship.
“It’s really cool,” said Gabriella Damyanova, 22, of Bulgaria, who attended for the first time. “There are so many people here, and you can talk with them and know each other. It’s really cool. I make so many friends from every different country.”
Damyanova, who is studying sociology, is in her third summer in the U.S. and is working as a hostess at 99 Sea Level.
“I love Bethany Beach so much. The people here are really nice. It’s not so big, it’s quiet,” she said, adding that she also loves her job. “My managers and the people there are so good to me. They are like my second family here in America.
“Last summer, for my birthday, they surprised me so much, because they made a cake for me and made a big surprise in the restaurant. It means a lot for me, because I’m not from America. I’m so far away from my parents. It’s really cool.”
The picnic, held on June 22, included hotdogs and hamburgers grilled by parishioners and a spread that would rival the best of Fourth of July picnics. The students were able to enjoy seconds and thirds of foods donated by volunteers, ranging from sides and salads to oh-so-many desserts.
Students who attended wrote their names on a piece of paper, along with their country. A large world map was also hung on the wall, where students would place a pushpin on the town or city from which they hail.
Although word of the picnic has spread over its 12 years of existence, parishioners still hand out flyers to students, as well as work with the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, local media and social media to ensure as many students as possible receive an invitation.
During the evening, students won prizes including shirts, backpacks and a plethora of gift certificates to local restaurants, donated by about 15 different businesses.
Bethany Beach Surf Shop owners Jim and Shiela McGrath donated about 40 T-shirts that were also given out during the event.
Earlier this week, Russian students working for the surf shop were able to give approximately 40 fellow students a free standup paddleboarding lesson as well.
Bethany Beach Fire Department Chief Brian Martin attended the picnic for the first time and handed out emergency information cards to all the students.
“We asked them to fill them out and carry them with them at all times, just in case they’re in an accident or need an ambulance. If that happens, hopefully, they’ll have it on them, and it gives us a little bit of background information on them. It just helps us take care of them a little bit better,” he said. “We, as an emergency services community, are trying to do as much as we can to help keep them safe for the summer.”
Safety was a priority on June 22, as parishioners installed lights on students’ bicycles throughout the entire event and the South Bethany Police Department distributed traffic vests.
“It was great. It was a nice community event. The support St. Martha’s gives the students is fantastic. We got to mingle with everybody and chat,” said Martin.
Randy Forster of Dickens Parlour Theatre also performed a magic show for the attending students.
One student, Mimie Vissuta of Thailand, enjoyed the show so much she emailed Forster a photo, saying, “Thank you for your fantastic magic. We really appreciate it! If we have a chance, we will go to watch your magic at Parlour Theatre.”
Rafal Roszkowski, 22, of Poland is about to enter his senior year of college, where he is studying computer science. Roszkowski has returned to Bethany for his second summer and is working for Sea Colony.
“People over here are very friendly. They welcome everybody, they are smiling. They are doing the small-talk. It’s an odd thing… Like, usually, if you’re just passing by someone on the street in Poland, you’re just passing by him — that’s it. Here, you say, ‘Hi!’ ‘Hi! How are you?’”
Ieva Golubickaite and Rytis Stakaitis, a 24-year-old couple from Lithuania, agreed.
“I never met a rude person, but maybe that’s just because I work on the beach. For example, I think we would never have this kind of community welcome of international students in Lithuania. So, this whole thing makes the whole nation of your country be very nice,” said Stakaitis.
“And kind and friendly!” added Golubickaite.
Stakaitis said that in Lithuania, people do not tend to smile at strangers.
“It’s not common to make small-talk. If you’re going to talk with someone, it’s going to last at least a half an hour.”
“We don’t say, ‘Hi,’ if we don’t know the person,” added Golubickaite.
The two are in their third summer working in Bethany and are currently working on their master’s degrees in laboratory medicine at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences in Kaunas. Their bachelor’s degrees are in genetics.
Both work for Sea Colony — Stakaitis as a beach attendant and Golubickaite in the recreational office.
“I think we just like it here. We like the people. … We can spend the whole summer by the ocean,” said Golubickaite.
“You can go out from your daily basis and just leave all of your troubles behind you. It’s kind of a vacation for your mind, to be here,” Stakaitis said.
During their time in the U.S., students can rent apartments or stay with hosts.
“We live with a very nice guy who lets us use his car to do grocery shopping,” said Stakaitis.
“He has a father, and they’re both retired veterans. They have some good stories to tell,” added Golubickaite.
Some other differences between the U.S. and the students’ home countries include traffic laws, food varieties and portions.
“The sizes of the plates and the food you order in restaurants are enormous. They are gigantic!” said Roszkowski. “You order a plate and you have a meal for a whole family for days!
“You have so many different cheeses. This is fun; this is really amazing. Most of the foods that are not salads are greasy. You use a lot of oil. You order anything from the restaurant, you have a side coming, like fries… You can just eat fries and be full.”
Damyanova said she loves the food — especially Fox’s Pizza and Coke.
“It’s my favorite,” she said with a laugh.
Roszkowski also said that, in Bethany, unlike in Poland, it is legal to make a right turn on red while driving.
“The biggest difference is you have very big cars,” said Stakaitis, noting that four-way-stops were also different.
“You have to eat a lot of food here to feel full. In Lithuania, you can eat twice less and feel the same amount of fullness,” said Golubickaite, opining that perhaps Lithuanians eat more natural foods with fewer additives.
“But we have McDonald’s! But we don’t get free refills, which is not very nice,” she said, laughing.
“What we do love here is that you do have seedless watermelons,” added Stakaitis.
The two said they do miss a traditional Lithuania dessert that is not available in the States — glaistytas vašk?s s?relis.
“It’s curd inside and chocolate on the outside. It’s really nice,” Golubickaite explained.
Golubickaite said that, while Lithuania is a colder country, it enjoys longer days.
“We have more daylight time — especially in summertime. It’s not dark until 11 there and the sun rises at 5, so that’s really nice.”
They recommend visiting Lithuania in July or August, because they are the warmest months. Lithuania is a very green country, the two said, with lots of forests and meadows.
“We have a very nice beach with big dunes in Nida,” she said. “It has one of the largest dunes.”
Stakaitis recommended visiting the Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai, a site that was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
“They also have very nice small towns,” said Golubickaite.
“You can feel the spirit of Lithuania in the towns,” Stakaitis said. “In the United States, the cities — they don’t have their spirit down here. In Lithuania, when you go to the OLD TOWN it has that unique feeling.”
The two noted their language is a great deal different from English, which they began learning in grade school.
“In Lithuania, the first names are usually literally the same word as some type of nature things. My name in Lithuanian means ‘morning.’ For example, one of the popular names in Lithuania means ‘Oak,’” said Stakaitis.
“My name would mean ‘Bird Cherry,’” added Golubickaite.
Many of the international students, who typically arrive at the beginning of June and leave in September, have been able to travel around the United States during their summers.
“This year, we don’t have so much time to travel, but last year we visited the West Coast, which was very, very cool. We really liked it,” Golubickaite said. “We like the TV series ‘Gray’s Anatomy,’ so we want to go to Seattle… Florida and then maybe Texas, I think. We’ll have to come back next year.”
Last year, she and Stakaitis flew from Baltimore to Las Vegas and rented a car, traveling to Zion National Park, the north and south ends of the Grand Canyon, and then proceeded to the West Coast. They visited Fredonia, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara before returning to Delaware.
The two noted that, before their big trip, their American friends in Bethany warned them to beware of rude drivers. However, that is not what they encountered.
“Everybody drives by the rules. Nobody uses their horn… That was nice,” said Stakaitis.
In their first year as J-1 students, the two visited New York, Niagra Falls, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
“One of the nicest parts — we took a ferry from Lewes to Cape May, and we saw all of those Victorian-times houses,” Stakaitis said.
Damyanova, too, did extensive traveling in previous summers, including to Miami, Las Vegas, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Washington, D.C., and New York. She said Niagara Falls was her favorite, and if she could, she would love to return.
“This may be my last [summer as a student], because I’m about to graduate in Bulgaria. I hope I will have a chance to come back again.”
Parishioner Al Thomas said he loves volunteering at the picnics to interact with the students and uses it as a rare opportunity to practice speaking Bulgaria.
“They’re all good kids,” he said. “A lot of them kept in touch with me, and returning kids remember me. That means I did something right.”
“It’s great. I really enjoy meeting the kids and the different kids,” added Lorraine, Thomas’ wife, who volunteers throughout the community but attended the picnic for the first time last week. “It’s really awesome. To me, I love listening to them talk. I love the fact that they come here to work. And their work ethic is amazing.”
St. Martha’s offers a number of programs for foreign students throughout the summer months, with “Practice English Nights” and the “Enjoy a Meal in an American Home” program, along with hosting the picnic.
“A number of years ago, when we first started doing this, the students were not welcome and, in some instances, were not treated very well, and that bothered us,” said Martha Fields, who helped start the picnic more than a decade ago. “We decided we could do something to make them feel welcome and participate in our community. And it’s just grown from there.”
Fields, who was joined by more than 20 volunteers on the evening of the picnic, was all smiles at the end, noting that the evening had been “fantastic.”
“The young people have come up and said, ‘Thank you for doing this. It was more than the food — it was meeting people and being welcome.’ So, it was a huge success. For me and St. Martha’s in general, it’s a thrill every year. It’s a new group with a few familiar faces. It’s just a thrill to be able to do this.”
And the students agreed.
“I think the picnic they have been doing here is really an amazing thing,” said Roszkowski. “It’s really amazing. Last year I was feeling kind of lost. I didn’t really know the country, my English was poor, I didn’t know what to do... Everything seemed so different from home… Making all international students come together is really nice thing, and I appreciate that. I’m happy to be here! It’s like the best place to be!”