(Sept. 13, 2013) While the ambiance might be a bit off, a trip to Ocean City’s Irish Outreach Center is just as good as a voyage to the Emerald Isle itself, at least in regards to the most important part – the people.
That seemed to be the consensus among the center’s volunteer staff, who gathered this week at the Clarion for an end-of-season luncheon, and all of whom spoke highly of the students who used their services this summer.
“The best part of doing this by far is meeting the kids,” said volunteer Jo Alexander. “I was very impressed with how grateful they are. Nothing is for granted. They thank you profusely.”
“The most important part was for them to know that they had a resource and an ally,” agreed fellow volunteer Bernie Busby. “This group has become the model for other groups like it.”
Indeed, the resort’s Irish Outreach has become successful beyond even the expectations of organization leaders Rick and Pat Fairbend, who began their effort in 2011 to provide assistance to the myriad Irish student workers who arrive in the resort each year.
“Two years ago, when we were doing this out of the backs of our cars, we wouldn’t have imagined that we’d get so much support from the community and specifically from all of you,” Pat Fairbend told the assembled volunteers.
For the past two years, however, Irish Outreach has had a physical location – first on 17th Street, and this year on 33rd – for students to gather and to store supplies. The group is currently searching for a headquarters for the 2014 summer.
“As it is, we can’t afford to pay for a place in the off-season when we’re not operational,” Rick Fairbend said. “This year’s location had better visibility than last year, and hopefully we’ll be able to find something even better for next year.”
Despite having a linguistic leg up over other student workers from Asia or Eastern Europe, Irish youth often arrive in a resort at somewhat of a disadvantage. Because of its good diplomatic terms with the Republic of Ireland, the U.S. State Department considers it to be a “visa waiver” country, meaning that Irish nationals do not have to have pre-arranged jobs or housing in order to qualify for entry into the U.S. under the J-1 work-travel visa program. Students from most other countries must acquire their visa through a sponsor, who is also liable for securing their employment.
As such, most Irish students arrive for the summer without a place to stay or work and, furthermore, with less required oversight from their travel sponsor or the State Department over where they are living or working. This continues to make Irish students easy targets for less scrupulous landlords and employers.
Irish Outreach provides students with help in securing jobs and housing, providing lists of businesses and landlords who are looking for foreign help, as well as lists of those who have conflicted with student workers in the past.
The Fairbends thanked a number of local businesses for hiring students who had come to Irish Outreach in need of work.
“The experience was nothing but positive. The students were outstanding,” said Justin Reed of Best Aquatic, which hired 15 to 20 students through Irish Outreach this season.
The organization also gives out home goods, such as kitchenware and bed linens, for students whose accommodations may not be providing them. These are acquired entirely through donations, although Irish Outreach does receive some financial assistance for its rent and operational costs through the Irish Apostolate in Silver Spring. That organization, in turn, is funded through the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the RoI’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
“They’ve recognized that this is a good program, and that we have a lot of Irish and Irish-Americans that are interested in working with these kids,” said Geri Garvey of the Irish Apostolate.
Most importantly, however, the Irish Outreach center serves as a proxy home for many of the students, where they can simply go for security and fellowship during their often hectic schedules.
“We’ve gotten some emails now from the parents, back in Ireland, saying that their child really felt that this was their home away from home,” Pat Fairbend said.
“For the first time, I think, this year I was answering questions about why we were doing this. The kids were really appreciative and couldn’t believe that someone was doing this for them,” said volunteer Eileen Sweeny.
Irish students in the resort are said to number between 600 and 700 annually for the past three seasons, a considerable increase over years previous due to the State Department’s increasing restriction on some of the Eastern European countries, which used to supply most of the resort’s labor. Russian students were estimated prior to 2010 at almost 1,500 per year, but have since been cut back by nearly 75 percent.