At New Prospect Primary School on St. Vincent, the principal remade half his office to create a library space. (Courtesy of Hands Across the Sea)

Ave Weekes-Stephens had her work cut out for her the day she took over as principal in 2010 at Cane End Government School, a primary school in St. Vincent in the Eastern Caribbean. The school had very few books. There was no library. Many kids struggled with reading.

“The students’ literacy levels were way below their age and grade level,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

So she set her sights on creating a school library, which seemed like an uphill task since reading materials were limited. A lack of resources has historically dogged the island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a mountainous enclave lapped by a turquoise sea, where 30 percent of residents live in poverty.

Weekes-Stephens said she noticed a turnaround at Cane End Government after the school, working with a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, got connected in 2012 with a nonprofit called Hands Across the Sea, and new books started appearing in her library. Not old, yellowed books discarded by tourists. They were titles the kids wanted to read like “Shauna’s Hurricane” by Francine Jacobs and the “Junie. B. Jones” series.

“They just revolutionized things for us,” Weekes-Stephens said about Hands Across the Sea, which is based in Boston.

The nonprofit has been helping to raise children’s literacy levels in the half-dozenEnglish-speaking island nations in the Eastern Caribbean, which also include Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia and Grenada.

The organization provides new books that kids are interested in reading, as well as supplies such as flashcards, that are child- and teacher-friendly, she said.

At another school in St. Vincent, New Prospect Primary School, which serves kids in grades kindergarten through sixth, there was no space for a full-size library. So Hands staff helped the principal repurpose half his office to create a library space — and the school right away saw an increase in students’ interest in reading and books, according to the nonprofit.

Weekes-Stephens said she was so excited to get the new books for her students because things like adult romance novels and mysteries titles that aren’t appropriate for students had frequently been donated to Caribbean schools in the past.

Reading materials provided by Hands were different because the Hands staff work closely with educators on the ground to develop and fulfill wish lists of books that fit students’ needs and interests. They also help renovate library spaces and cull old or inappropriate books.

It’s all part of an effort to provide an alternative to what the organization describes as “donation dumping.”

“What I would call ‘donation dumping’ [is] very well-meaning people going into their basement or attic and pulling out children’s books that they no longer want or need and putting them in a box and sending them down to the islands,” said Harriet Linskey, Hands’ executive director and co-founder.

There are other ways people donation dump, as well.

“The other source is very well-meaning school districts or educators up here who are changing out all their textbooks and realize, ‘Oh we don’t need these textbooks anymore, let’s send them to the Caribbean,’” she said.

A collection of books gathered by Hands Across the Sea based on requests by principals and teachers. The nonprofit also includes books from Caribbean publishers. (Courtesy of Hands Across the Sea)

Because they’re expensive to buy, those books are still shelved in school libraries. But, “they’re never touched, and then they become magnets for insects and mold and dust and dirt,” Linskey said. “The library becomes a stagnant place.”

Linskey, a former marketing and sales executive, and her husband Tom Linskey — Hands’ co-founder and marketing director, who’d owned a media and marketing company and was a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic yachting team — had sailed together off the coast of Mexico and across the South Pacific to New Zealand, where Harriet Linskey taught English for a time. They knew they wanted to go sailing again and give back when, in 2007, they started the nonprofit, even before working out the details of what they might do.

They sailed throughout the Eastern Caribbean, stepping into and out of postcards like at St. Lucia — a regional tourist hot spot, which attracted 1.1 million visitors in 2017, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, with its widely recognized dramatic, dual volcanic spires, the Pitons.

Eventually, in visiting local schools, they discovered a strong need for books that better fit students.

“I once pulled a book off the shelf in a school in St. Lucia — with a view of the back side of the Pitons — and it was the same textbook I used in my third-grade math class … in 1967,” Linskey said.

But it also quickly became clear that to make an impact would require more than new books.

So Hands started partnering closely with educators on the ground and other organizations working to help kids improve their reading. It’s a team effort between principals, teachers, parents, Peace Corps Volunteers and Hands team members.

Initially, after the Linskeys started Hands, the financially successful pair lived off their savings from 2007 to 2011. By 2012, they’d raised enough money so that they could earn a salary. (If they raise enough funds, they each make $48,000 per year, which is disclosed with other audited financials on Hands website.)

In addition to their full-time work, the organization now has two part-time contractors in the United States — a bookkeeper and operations director — and nine program officers who have a background in education in the six countries they serve.

“We call them Literacy Links,” Linskey said. “They visit the school libraries on a regular basis and provide mentoring, coaching and training.”

Luanda Haywood, a reading coach and teacher-librarian at Liberta Primary School in Antigua, said she appreciates that when she works with Hands, she chooses the books her students will like and read.

“So it’s not things that are shoved on you — it’s not, use this because we’re sending [it],” she said.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of favorite reads that students share with their counterparts abroad. Among some of the hot commodities that Liberta Primary School has on the shelves of its school library, which was converted from a cordoned-off section of its kitchen, are Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys mysteries.

“The children can learn about animals; they learn about sports figures — down to wrestling figures,” Haywood said. “They read about the Rock, about John Cena. My boys really love those books. … They go outside to hide the books, so when they come back, they’re the only ones who know where the books [can be] found,” she laughs.

Above all, the books are engaging — which is the point.

The kids even make it a point to take care of the books so they’re in good shape for the students in classes behind them, Haywod said.

Like Haywood, Weekes-Stephens has worked with teachers at her school to improve their approach to teaching reading by focusing more on comprehension. Since Hands became involved in 2012, she’s been impressed with increases in the number of students at her school who now read at grade level. Fewer than half the students were meeting the mark in 2010 when she started, compared with the majority of them at the end of the 2012-13 school year.

“It was a vast improvement,” Weekes-Stephens said.

She added that strides in literacy have helped students in other subject areas too — and she gives a nod to Hands for that.

“The students got interested in reading, and so that really helps us in helping the children to achieve,” she said.

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