HAL Program Gives Back to San Diego, Other Communities

March 7, 2009
San Diego's cruise guests are greeted with a sweeping view of the downtown skyline, barking sea lions hanging out on buoy markers and, at this time of the year, whale-watching boats that criss-cross San Diego Bay as they head out or return with tourists. Cruise ships enjoy a privileged position in one of the most glorious cities in the United States; there are no shipping containers, no industrial chemical tanks, no massive cranes ... those are hidden around a crook in the harbor.

Also hidden from the view of the cruise ships are the thousands of homeless and disenfranchised who call San Diego home.

On March 6, Cruise Critic attended the kickoff of Holland America Line's Ship to Shelter program in San Diego. Through this program -- which was initiated last April in Seattle, where Holland America's headquarters are based, and late last year in Ft. Lauderdale, another major domestic hub -- the cruise line donates surplus items like toiletries, books and linens to local shelters.

The idea surfaced about a year and a half ago, when the refurbishing and updating of a Holland America ship raised a conundrum: What on earth could the line do with several hundred perfectly good and only two-year-old televisions, which were being replaced onboard by flat-screen TV's? Knowing most of this type of waste ends up in landfills, a staffer suggested donating the televisions to homeless shelters, and the Ship to Shelter program was born.

On this day, the cruise line teamed up with the City of San Diego, the Port of San Diego and the Alpha Project -- a social service agency that offers aid to hundreds of people who find themselves in need of shelter. The Alpha Project covers the area between Riverside and San Diego, California and helps upwards of 12,000 people per year.

Rick Meadows, the cruise line's executive vice president of marketing, sales and guest programs, joined officials from the Port of San Diego in handing hundreds of items -- mostly bottles of unused room amenities like soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion -- to Bob McElroy of San Diego's Alpha Project. These are all items that have to be removed from cabins before each new guest arrives. Previously, the items -- even if unused -- were discarded.

"We have a strong history in giving back to the community," says Meadows. "It's part of our corporate culture, and we're proud of it. We have 56 turnarounds in San Diego right now, bringing approximately 86,000 passengers to this port. If we can also contribute reusable goods -- perfectly good and usable items -- and can get other cruise lines to join us, we will make a difference."

"The Alpha Project is not an 'entitlement' program; it's an 'empowerment' program," McElroy explains. "We don't run thrift shops where we will sell these items to other people and get money for them. We give them directly to the people we are trying to help. We have to be very careful with how we spend our funds, and now we don't have to pay to purchase soaps, shampoos and lotions. We can concentrate on housing and training."

McElroy tells us that most of the people who benefit from the program are elderly and poor, with small, fixed incomes. "Their housing, as in many cities, had been torn down to make room for new condos or other new projects, and they were not rehoused elsewhere. We will transition them to permanent housing and continue to assist them, but these donations really, really help."

Through Holland America's program, those in need receive not only hygiene products, but also pots and pans, dishes and books, and sheets and blankets as they become available.

"The people we're helping now are people from the greatest generation -- people who led America through World War II, who have worked all their lives, paid taxes and now find themselves in dire straits. We owe them," McElroy says. "We owe them."

We are so accustomed to day after day of bad news -- the chronicling of economic downturns, job losses and fear. It's about time, then, for a story that's good, about a program that does good.

--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor

--The image of port officials with donated materials appears courtesy of Holland America Line. Pictured, left to right: Bob McElroy, President and CEO, Alpha Project; Richard D. Meadows, Executive Vice President, Marketing, Sales & Guest Programs, Holland America Line; and Stephen P. Cushman, Chairman, Board of Port Commissioners. Other images appear, courtesy of Jana Jones.