Alum of the Month

Hotchkiss - Harriet Rogers Linskey '78

Harriet Rogers Linskey '78 is co-founder and executive director of Hands Across the Sea, a nonprofit dedicated to improving child literacy in the Eastern Caribbean islands of Antigua, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada. To date, 103,000 children at 352 schools in six countries now have access to school lending libraries and over 464,000 new, culturally-appropriate, and requested reading books. Linskey notes that the vast majority of children in the Eastern Caribbean have few or no books at home, and have not grown up with books and reading -- a situation that is now changing.

Eleven years on, Harriet and her husband, Tom Linskey, are now encountering young adults who benefitted from Hands Across the Sea as children. "One of the first schools we assisted in 2008 was located in a poor fishing village in Dominica, and we got to know a fifth-grade boy named Simon. Recently, while Tom and I were walking through the village, a 6-foot 2-inch young man tapped us on the shoulder. 'Do you remember me? I am Simon! I've just finished community college, and now I'm going to get my Ph.D. in agriculture.' It's thrilling to think of the impact new books and school libraries have had on opening up the world to Caribbean children. Kids are now able to read, and they're moving on to high school and tertiary education, and contributing to the development of their countries."

Harriet Linskey came to Hotchkiss as a lower mid in 1975, the second year that girls were admitted. "I came from a boarding-school family," she says. "My uncle, Lyttleton Gould, was a member of the Hotchkiss Class of 1939, so when it came time for me to look at schools, I was blown away by Hotchkiss: the facilities, the campus, and the beautiful surroundings. I was thrilled when I was accepted!"

Many faculty members inspired Linskey. "I could not have understood geometry without Walter Crain. He was so patient. And Mr. Stone made calculus fun, somehow! French with George Anastasio and David and Carolyn Demaray ignited an interest in French literature-I became a comparative literature major at Yale, and my Hotchkiss preparation allowed me to skip the introductory courses and jump right into Renaissance poetry."

After graduating from Yale, Linskey began a career in corporate sales and marketing at Ziff-Davis Publishing in San Francisco during the early days of the PC era. In 1987, she and husband Tom embarked on a sailing adventure across the South Pacific in a 28-foot sailboat. "But after landfalls in beautiful islands such as the Marquesas and Tonga, we were struck by the poverty. Here we were in paradise, but the reality for locals was very different. We vowed that the next time we voyaged, we would give back."

The couple settled in New Zealand, where Linskey earned a teaching diploma and taught English at a rural secondary school. "I was put in charge of the library, but the previous librarian had stocked it with British spy and romance novels-the kids were not interested. I commandeered the budget and purchased New Zealand titles and series like Goosebumps to get kids hooked on reading. The experience stayed with me."

The Linskeys returned to the States and corporate careers in 1994. Harriet enjoyed helping companies such as HP, Disney, Cablevision, and Coca-Cola reach their goals, but after 12 years the Linskeys decided it was time to use their skills (Tom is a writer and graphic designer) to give back.

Sailing in 2008 brought them to a Caribbean island, and one day a swarm of bright, eager children in school uniforms led them over the hill and through the goats to a dilapidated primary school with a rusting roof. "The principal proudly showed us her library-filled with moldy, yellowed spy-and romance-novel discards. The library concept was there, but because of the 'donation dumping' of inappropriate books there was nothing for these kids to read. We thought: Let's get these kids some new books!" Hands Across the Sea was born.

The Linskeys soon realized that brand-new books alone were not enough; there needed to be a methodology for the program to be effective. They created a library manual with instructions for a simple, color-coded organization scheme and a basic check-out system. Pictures of successful Eastern Caribbean school libraries showed it could be done within and across islands.

"The Eastern Caribbean doesn't get a lot of attention," says Linskey. "These countries are small, and crime and illiteracy pose constant challenges. Schools are underfunded, and teachers receive very little training. But we've seen some positive changes lately: education reform is being encouraged by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, and UNICEF has a program to reduce corporal punishment in schools. USAID is now leading a literacy-focused, teacher professional development program, and I sit on the regional advisory board."

In addition to shipping 100,000 new books to 117 schools in September 2018, the Hands team wrote and compiled a 180-page manual of lesson plans, best practices, and reading strategies for teachers. "The content is 100-percent Caribbean and complements the USAID project underway. The concept of sharing best practices within islands and across the region is new, and the response from educators has been very positive."

Hands' fundraising efforts grew from raising $10,000 in 2007 to approximately $430,000 last year. "Donations come from individuals, family foundations, and a few corporate grants. We purchase new books at a discount, and receive occasional in-kind donations from publishers. Warehousing and shipping are donated, and customs clearance in the islands is duty-free.

"I feel that my education at Hotchkiss and Yale, my love for sailing to new places, and my work experience in education, marketing, sales, and technology brought me to where I am today: bringing positive change to thousands of children. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have attended Hotchkiss, and for the lifelong friendships I made. The Hotchkiss experience launched me to do my best, to succeed in my endeavors, and to realize that I have a responsibility to give back."

To learn more, visit: www.handsacrossthesea.net