OCEAN CITY – The volunteers who organize a weekly gathering for international students working in Ocean City for the summer who know what it’s like to be alone in a new country.
David Letushko, one of the organizers of the J-1 International Coffee House in Ocean City, said many members of the three Ukrainian and Russian churches that organize the events immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine or Russia.
All three churches are in the Vineland-area.
“Christians, Baptists specifically, were persecuted during the Soviet regime, and so America was open enough to give us refugee visas for our parents, so we came here with our parents or our families in the early ’90s and early 2000s,” he said.
Letushko it is “scary to come to a new country, not knowing anyone, being maybe 18, 19, 20, 21 years old, and just knowing that you have a place to work, maybe, you have a place to sleep, maybe,” he said.
About 13 years ago, the J-1 International Coffee House, an event for international students working in the United States on a J-1 visa, formed to help these students meet new people and feel less alone in a new environment.
The volunteer-led event is held at the Ocean City Baptist Church at 7 p.m. Tuesdays from June to August.
Letushko got involved 13 years ago. The events began as an idea of Roman Kapran’s, of Ukrainian Baptist Church in Crum Lynne, Pa. He thought of ministering to international students after vacationing in Ocean City, according to Letushko.
He reached out to the Ocean City Baptist Senior Pastor Kevin O’Brien after attending a few services at Ocean City Baptist.
The Coffee House began as a church service, and was originally held in Russian because most of the students who came were from Russian-speaking countries.
As the Coffee House grew and attracted more students, the events were held in English.
Through the years, the format of the Coffee House also changed.
“At first, we basically did a mini-church service, but we realized that wasn’t the best format to engage these people because a lot of them are not Christians,” Letushko said.
The Coffee House now includes food, time to socialize, and a short message. A few themed Coffee House events are held each summer, including one barbecue with games, a beach volleyball event, and a Christmas-in-July themed event.
Some years, they take the students on a trip to Washington, D.C.
Students who attend the Coffee House also have the opportunity to take art or music classes at the Ocean City Arts Center.
He estimated the coffeehouse has grown from just a handful of students in the early days up to the 80 students who can attend more recent Coffee House events.
Students who attend come from Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia.
According to O’Brien, they spread the word about the Coffee House by having volunteers pass out fliers.
O’Brien said the Coffee House helps students get to know each other and to feel safe in a place they’ve never been before.
“It was a really good partnership (with Ocean City Baptist and the other churches) in that we could provide a place with a perfect location, a block from the beach, right in the downtown, and they could provide, at first Russian speakers … but also young people who know what it’s like having come over from the Ukraine and other people who came from other places who know that it’s like to come over for the first time and make them feel at home and feel welcome,” he said.
Jirachaya “Fern” Sirikrajang, of Thailand, who attended a recent coffeehouse, is in the United States for the first time. She is spending her summer working in an ice cream shop.
So far, she said she liked everything about being in the United States.
“It’s a peaceful city,” she said about Ocean City.
She said she likes living here because the people are nice. During her time in the United States, she wants to travel to Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco.
Jhanelle Johnson, of Jamaica, had been in the United States for two weeks when she came to June 11 Coffee House.
She is spending her summer working as a housekeeper at a local motel and traveled with a few friends she knew in Jamaica.
Johnson learned about the Coffee House through a friend.
So far, she enjoys living in the United States and she said the people are nice. However, she noted that the weather is colder in America.
Janelle Dixon, also from Jamaica, added that in Jamaica, people are frequently outside, which is different from the United States.
For Johnson, adjusting to the environment has been the most difficult part of the summer so far.
The J-1 International Coffee House is held every Tuesday at 7 p.m. from June to August. The Coffee House is held at the Ocean City Baptist Church at 10th Street and Wesley Avenue in Ocean City.
For more information, call (609) 399-2261 or email J1coffeehouse@gmail.com.