Bill Coscarelli waded into a whole new world last year when he volunteered as chaplain support staff for the Seamen's Church Institute in downtown Paducah.
Coscarelli, a Paducah resident and retired professor from Southern Illinois University, now wears a uniform that consists of a black shirt, khaki pants, nonslip boots and a Transportation Worker Identification Credential. He's a listener for towboat crews, workers he calls the "unseen glue" holding the nation together.
Maritime workers, including captains, pilots and deckhands, may be on a boat for six months out of the year, away from family and friends, missing birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and other milestones.
"You're on the boat and you're away from your family," Coscarelli said. "Nowadays, with the web and everything, there's a little more communication, but you're missing birthdays. You might be missing Christmas. These boats don't stop. Some loneliness can set in as well."
He serves as a listener, and a Critical Incident Stress Management responder so he can help after such incidents as an accidental death, natural disaster, weather emergency, fire or sinking vessel. He is additionally trained in applied suicide intervention skills and first aid.
"It's sort of enriched my understanding of this whole world that nobody knows about," he said. "It's not in anybody's consciousness unless you're living real close to a river, and even then (many people) don't understand what that life is like."
His boat visits are part of Seamen's Church's Ministry on the Rivers and Gulf program, in which professional chaplains and volunteers assist maritime industry workers on inland waterways and offer support and fellowship. In 2018, chaplains on inland rivers met or assisted 1,606 maritime workers. Of that figure, 82 of them received crisis intervention and 175 were led in worship or prayer, according to SCI's 2018 annual report.
Founded in 1834, Seamen's Church Institute is an ecumenical agency affiliated with the Episcopal Church that works to promote the "safety, dignity and improved working environment" for those serving in North American and international maritime workplaces.
Coscarelli volunteers with the Rev. Kempton Baldridge of Paducah, someone he calls the "patron saint of the inland waterways." He's the senior river chaplain for Ministry on the Rivers and Gulf's Ohio River region.
During a recent visit to the institute, Baldridge had several boxes inside his office that were headed for the river. The boxes were filled with household items -- such as toothbrushes, playing cards and postcards -- to give maritime workers during his chaplain calls. After all, he explained, chaplains don't visit only when something bad happens.
"The vast majority of mariners will go through life and they'll have stresses and they will have times of isolation and loneliness and all of that," Baldridge said. "… If the only time a mariner ever meets a chaplain is on the worst day of his or her life, then they don't necessarily want to see us again because we reminded them of something horrible."
Chaplains often make social calls to be whatever they're needed to be, even a "floating guidance counselor." Coscarelli isn't a counselor and isn't a chaplain, but he's friendly and can talk to a rock, Baldridge said.
"The thing I enjoy about taking Bill with me to the shipyards, for example, is that he doesn't make it awkward," he said. "He never makes it appear like he's a VIP or some outsider. He's there to fit in and figures out a way to do that, which is really sort of neat. He's a ministry multiplier."
Baldridge is a familiar sight to longtime towboat pilot Steve Bugg, who works for Ingram Barge Company. Bugg considers "Chaps" a friend and has seen him on boat visits with the crew and at the institute.
Bugg appreciates the work of Baldridge, Seamen's Church Institute and its volunteers. He said they're good support in times of need and are there for everyone, regardless of personal or religious backgrounds.
"They also bring Christmas boxes to the boat with books and scarves and stuff for the crew at Christmas," Bugg said.
"Of course, we have to work Christmas just like any other time of the year. It means a lot to the guys out there -- it means a lot to everyone, the entire crew. It's a little Christmas for us even if we can't be home."