A Voyage into Reading
Hands Across the Sea spreads its blessing to Turks & Caicos.
Courtesy Hands Across the Sea
For sailors Tom “T.L.” Linskey and his wife Harriet, Caribbean cruising at its best is half challenge, half discovery. The challenges involve everything from ocean sailing from New England to the Caribbean and the often boisterous conditions between the islands, to living aboard and maintaining the boat’s equipment as they hop from place to place.
As for discoveries, they’re plentiful in the Caribbean: a generous sprinkling of island gems, each with its own beauty, culture and history, along with an ever-changing cast of international cruisers and local characters. Yet it was only in the past few years, after sampling the Leewards and Windwards for over 30 years, that the Linskeys stumbled on a side of the islands that they never knew existed.
The pair’s first bluewater cruise was in 1986 on a 28-foot Bristol Channel Cutter they built from bare hull and deck. This 15,000 mile trip started in southern California, went on to Baja California, Mexico, and then to the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia, ending with a 47-day nonstop passage to Japan. While cruising through the South Pacific, the Linskeys were struck as much by the awe-inspiring beauty as the near-poverty of the local people. Like many cruisers, they helped out where they could, always more than repaid with smiles and an avalanche of fruit, but they had no structure in place to make a lasting difference.
Fast forward to 2007, when the couple sold their house in Massachusetts, plunked the money down on a new Dolphin 460 performance-cruising cat, and began preparing to set out on a second round of bluewater cruising. This time, they wanted to both cruise and make a difference—a real difference—along the way. Before they left, they filed paperwork for Hands Across the Sea, a U.S.-registered 501 (c)(3) non-profit charity. But its focus was unclear. Girls’ empowerment? Protecting the environment? Delivering medical supplies? The Linskeys thought, “Sure, all of those are good causes. But are any of them our causes? And whatever we decide to do, can two people make a truly significant impact, operating from a sailboat?”
While sailing from Aracaju, Brazil, where the cat was built, north through the Eastern Caribbean, they visited schools (Harriet is a former teacher) on Union Island, Dominica and Nevis to see if they could help in some way. On each island, school principals and teachers said the same thing: child literacy is a serious problem. At almost every school, reading books for children are in very, very short supply. Most children do not grow up with books in the home (too expensive), and many children are reading far below grade level. Schools have their own government-mandated textbooks and curriculum, but government budgets don’t stretch to providing reading books—the kind of books that excite and engage kids, the kind of books that can help open the door to a lifelong love of reading. The Linskeys were deeply disturbed to see such bright, eager children growing up without books, without a love of reading, and they wanted to do something about it.
Harriet Linskey explains, “We kept at it every year, refining and growing our mission, sailing between the Eastern Caribbean and New England, living aboard the whole time. We’d spend winters in the islands, leaving the boat every morning to hop on a bus or taxi and heading off to investigate schools we’d heard about. We’d listen to school principals, teachers, literacy advisors, remedial reading specialists, U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers and Ministry of Education officials, all of whom gave us a warm welcome and solid advice. And at every school we’d be thronged by kids, laughing, smiling, high-fiving, running, playing, singing. What an amazing discovery, this side of the Caribbean we’d somehow never seen! We’d come away convinced that there’s no way anyone could visit a Caribbean school and not want to help out, not want to become a part of it.”
“Our part was getting needed school materials, from pencils to tempura paint to photocopiers and toner, to the teachers and getting top-notch books to the students. Every May we’d sail back to New England, where we’d spend the summer buying, sorting, and packing that year’s shipment. Then, in late October, we’d sail back to the Caribbean and check in with our “adopted” schools—last season alone we visited over 60 schools, from Anguilla to Grenada. Our most recent shipment, in October 2011, comprised 51,470 new and near-new books and 95 boxes of teaching materials, weighed more than 19,000 pounds, filled an 18-wheeler truck, and went to 100 Hands-adopted projects.”
Hands Across the Sea is now the largest public charity dedicated to raising the literacy levels of Eastern Caribbean children from pre-school to high school. They’ve shipped over 102,000 new and near-new books and 184 boxes of teaching resources to 178 schools, community libraries, reading programs, and youth centers, reaching over 37,000 children. They work on the islands of Anguilla, Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada and, most recently Turks & Caicos. For the 2011 shipment alone they coordinated with 41 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers and 94 school principals, department heads or teachers, fulfilling their Hands Wish Lists of requested books and teaching resources. In 2011, the U.S. Embassy selected Hands Across the Sea to create libraries for underserved high schools on six islands, and they partnered with The Sandals Foundation on several school library and youth center projects.
As Hands Across the Sea has grown, the Linskeys say they’ve learned three key things:
Send Great Books. The “donation dumping” practice of charities that send throwaway books—library discards, worn-out, outdated or inappropriate books—to Caribbean children is not only counterproductive but harmful. Hands Across the Sea purchases only new or near-new books published by Scholastic, Dorling-Kindersley and Caribbean-niche imprints such as Macmillan Caribbean, LMH Publishing, and Campanita Books. Not only do kids respond to new, well-written and well-illustrated books with contemporary subject matter, the effect of “seeing themselves” in the books is powerful. Thus they are sending more and more books about the Caribbean, written and illustrated by Caribbean authors and artists.
Create Vibrant Libraries. Books alone are not enough. Hands Across the Sea works only with schools whose staff are truly committed to improving literacy, and can draw on support from literacy coordinators and remedial reading teachers. The best way to make reading a part of children’s lives is to create sustainable, high-functioning borrowing libraries, usually a school library. Doing so takes dedication and resources, along with substantial buy-in from school staff, parents and members of the local community. Together with U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in the region, Hands is developing guides for creating vibrant borrowing libraries in schools, often where no library existed before—in the school or the community.
Life is a Voyage. Tom and Harriet learned that cruising can still take them to new places. They explain, “We never dreamed, for example, that we’d find ourselves in the front row of a classroom at Piaye Combined School in rural southern St. Lucia, being welcomed by a troupe of barefoot, costumed, student Creole dancers (Hands donated new books to the school’s library, damaged by Hurricane Tomas). Or that we’d be wandering the playground of Fitz-Hughes Primary School in Chateaubelair, St. Vincent, as the entire school—teachers, too—joyously skipped rope (Hands donated five boxes of teaching resources, including jump ropes). Or, at the opening of the Hands-created Literacy Center at Isaiah Thomas Secondary School on Dominica, that we’d come suddenly face-to-face with a high school boy, tall and on the cusp of becoming a man, who fist-bumped us and then pressed his hand over his heart, rasta-style—one love—without saying a word. He didn’t need to.”
Tom and Harriet Linskey say that the Hands Across the Sea voyage, with all of its challenges and discoveries, has been rewarding beyond anything they could have imagined. “We count ourselves lucky to be able to make a lasting difference in the Caribbean, this special place of beautiful islands and warm smiles. We count ourselves lucky to be able to slip behind the veil and become a small part of the life of the real Caribbean.”
For more information, visit www.handsacrossthesea.net
THE TURKS & CAICOS CONNECTION
The goal of Community Fellowship Center Assemblies of God church in Providenciales is to provide a “life-changing experience.” Thanks to the help of Hands Across the Sea (HAS), the on-site school, Community Christian Academy (CCA), is building a school library that will open students’ minds and imaginations to the wonders and pleasures of reading.
Church Administrator Charmaine Thomas made quite an impression on Hands Across the Sea’s Harriet Linskey during an initial phone call. Charmaine was a former Documentation Specialist at the Caribbean Centre for Development Administration in Barbados and School Assistant Librarian in the Commonwealth of Dominica, where over 33 school libraries were supervised, together with training teachers and principals on managing a school library. With Charmaine’s assurance that the fledgling school library would be administered with care, as well as her promise to help HAS develop a “How to Run a Library” manual, Harriet gave approval for the charity to assist in Turks & Caicos, in spite of the fact that they had agreed not to expand into any more Caribbean countries in 2012.
Then Divine Guidance stepped in. Although CCA had not yet raised any library funds nor secured local donors, Harriet happened to meet a Pine Cay homeowner on a train from New York to Rhode Island over the Christmas holidays! After exclaiming over the coincidence, he promptly wrote a check for $500, to which HAS generously added $100. From this, Harriet purchased the first shipment of books from Scholastic Publishing, at which HAS is a Scholastic Literacy Partner. With about 150 students ranging in age from 2 to 13 years old, books included both fiction and non-fiction selections for a variety of age groups.
Charmaine estimates another 250 books are needed to start the library, with more books added as the library grows. Interested donors can donate funds directly to Hands Across the Sea, designating their donation for Turks & Caicos (or another Caribbean island). Visit www.handsacrossthesea.net or contact Charmaine Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Cover photographer Christine Morden works for Paradise Photography www.myparadisephoto.com , a full service boutique company based in the TCI. She especially enjoyed the Rejouvenance photo shoot to learn about the benefits of coconuts and to smell the amazing scents of their hand-crafted products.