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