By Logan Dubel
As war breaks out across the world between Russia and Ukraine, many here in the United States are left wondering how this unfathomable conflict impacts us. We have all witnessed frightening scenes of warfare in the media and know that the economic and humanitarian impact of the invasion is immeasurable. However, here in Ocean City, Maryland, this latest international conflict is quite personal. Without the kindness, hard work, and grit of countless young Ukrainians over the years, the resort would not be able to serve and bring smiles to its visitors each summer.
For decades, J-1 international seasonal workers have powered Ocean City’s summer rush. The program, established by the State Department in 1961, provides approximately 4,000 workers to the resort, and their absence amidst the Covid-19 pandemic left a massive and noticeable void over the past two years.
While the Town of Ocean City lies nearly 5,000 miles away from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, it has not stopped everyone from local leaders to business owners and ordinary citizens from showing their support for Ukrainians, specifically those who keep the resort bustling year after year.
Earlier this week, Mayor Rick Meehan shared a resonating and impactful message. “For decades Ukrainians have worked hand in hand with us in Ocean City – this war isn’t happening to strangers,” the graphic reads. Created by local artist Marc Emond, Meehan noted that the message is representative of what everyone believes.
The town’s support went beyond social media. On Wednesday night, leaders had City Hall illuminated in yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Mayor Meehan is not the only resort leader making his voice heard. Council Secretary Tony DeLuca tells OceanCity.com that he has seen the contributions of Ukrainians to the town firsthand.
“In my seven and a half years on the Ocean City Council, I have experienced many positive situations with our Ukrainian J-1s. They are extremely smart, hard-working, and very service-oriented,” he reflected. “Our hearts and minds are certainly in total support. Also, our thoughts and prayers go out to each and every one of the Ukrainian people.”
Visual displays have continued throughout the week, with Jolly Roger Amusement Parks lighting its iconic Ferris wheel in blue and yellow with a heart beating in the center.
Additionally, third-generation Ukrainian-American Michael Panco sculpted a larger-than-life Ukrainian coat of arms in the sand outside of the Carousel Hotel. Even Fish Tales has posted a sign that says, “United We Stand with Ukraine.” Additionally, Ragamuffin Boutique has created “We Stand with Ukraine” stickers for its patrons.
For people in the hospitality and service industries, there is nothing more vital than their staff. Seeing images of struggle from across the globe has struck the heartstrings of many who work side by side with Ukrainians.
“I do not know where to even begin about my Ukrainian kids. Because that is what they are – my kids! I have been participating in the J-1 program for the 15 years that I have been the HR director at the Princess Royale,” said JoAnn P. Rahe. “My Ukrainian kids are some of the hardest working and dedicated workers we have had. Always upbeat and positive no matter what their job is. Always a smile for all of our guests. They are strong people, and my heart goes out to them. I have been in touch with many of them since this has started and everyone is ok so far, and I’m praying it continues. Sending my prayers and much love to all my kids and the entire country.”
As the war continues, it is not only Ukrainians that are concerned. Joe White, the owner of the Shrimp Boat, has spoken with one of his loyal employees, who hails from another country under pressure by Russia. He too is now fearful for what comes next.
“One person that sticks out in my mind is actually from Moldova which is the country just to the south and west of Ukraine but also used to be a part of the USSR. One of our favorite teammates is Stan, who is from Moldova. Russia interferes with their country too, and they even have a separatist region called Tranistia that is controlled by Russian sympathizers,” White explained. “Stan wants what we call ‘The American Dream’ that we take for granted. I reached out to him recently and there is worry that his country is next. Moldova is very poor compared to Ukraine and much more reliant on Russia so they would never stand a chance. They need folks like Stan to fight the good fight, but he is looking to leave his homeland to be safe and prosperous – something we just take for granted in America.”
These sentiments are not simply all talk. Ocean City is indeed taking action. The Ropewalk is hosting a fundraiser for the resort’s friends in Ukraine on Thursday, March 10, from 5 to 9 p.m. Organized by Anne Marie Conestabile, Program Director for the local company United Work and Travel, all proceeds from food and drinks will benefit connections Conestabile and her team have developed over the past twenty years partnering with international workers.
“At Ropewalk I will have significant people who have direct contact with their families who are in shelters or hiding in their homes, or ones who have decided to leave for Poland or neighboring Moldova,” Conestabile said. “In addition, a local band has volunteered to play and the singer is married to one of my former J-1 students who sadly has all of her immediate family there caught up in the middle of the war zone.”
The fundraiser will also include a 50/50 raffle, as well as a door prize of a classic Italian dinner for eight, offered to the first person who donates $100+ to the cause.
While Ocean City certainly hopes to welcome back its Ukrainian friends this summer, more importantly, the town and its tourist base wish them nothing but safety. It is because of their unwavering commitment to the success of the resort that people here at home have felt a call to action to show their strong support for Ukraine during this extraordinary moment in history.