The little church with a big heart is doing its part to welcome the influx of international students to the area, by hosting its annual international students picnic next week.
St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Bethany Beach will hold the picnic on Tuesday, June 21 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“It started about ten years ago,” said Martha Fields, who has served on the committee since the picnic started. “Members of Saint Martha’s became aware of the number of international students that were coming to work in our area and thing weren’t going very well for many of them.
“They would get here and not have housing, or the job they had been promised was not available. This interest in outreach to the students resulted in us having a welcoming picnic for them every year as a way to have them feel like someone is caring and concerned about them, and welcoming them to the U.S.”
Fields said in the past the church had some difficulty reaching out to the students, as it was a grassroots effort. However, once people started posting about it on social media last year, the event grew.
“It was a real challenge. We would go to places we knew hired the students and carry flyers so when we saw someone we would just hand them to them. So there was a fair amount of personal outreach and giving of invitations,” she said. “I was taking flyers around to businesses a week or so ago and handed one to a young man at Shore Foods on Route One and he said, ‘I went to this when I was a student! Can I take a picture of this and put it on Facebook?’”
Last year the picnic hosted approximately 90 international students.
“Last year we had a record number of people, so we’re trying to plan for a large number this year too because the social media involvement has made a huge difference…
“We have a social hall that was absolutely full of young men and young women, mostly from the eastern European countries. It has shifted over the years. When we first started there were al lot of people from England, Ireland, Scotland, and then over the years, the program has shifted more to being eastern European.”
The free picnic is held in the church’s social hall, and all international students are invited to attend.
“We grill hotdogs and hamburgers and serve various side dishes and salads, fresh fruits. We’ve developed a sense of what the students like over the years and we try to have what we think they would enjoy. They don’t have much money, particularly at the first of the season. So they bring their appetites, believe me,” she said with a laugh.
The annual picnic is organized by a small group of parishioners, however Fields said the entire congregation pitches in to help.
“The small committee is really supported by the people of St. Martha’s. They really pitch in and help with side dishes and coming to set up tables and that kind of thing. We have tremendous support from the people of Saint Martha’s.”
Fields said parishioners are passionate about such community outreach because of the blessings they feel for being born in the United States.
“We are very proud obviously, we feel very blessed to have been born and grown up here. And we felt they were coming and sometimes just not treated properly, and we didn’t think that was right. We wanted them to come and feel welcome here, feel they had friends here, and would leave at the end of the summer with a positive impression of our country.”
The hope this year, said Fields, is to have a large turnout of students as the church did last year, and give them a warm welcome to the community and to the country.
“It is always our hope that we feel like we’ve befriended the students and that they leave the picnic of a positive impression of Saint Martha’s of course, but more broadly speaking the U.S. And that they’ve been welcomed warmly and people have invited them to have food, fellowship, and a good time.”
St. Martha’s Episcopal Church is located at 117 Maplewood St. in downtown Bethany Beach.