Hands Across The Sea

Posh seven loves to scout out do-gooders from Loudoun county. Meet Hannah and Damian Knecht, two beloved educators that had worked within the Loudoun county public schools system before they traded in their conventional lifestyle and set out on a mission of love for the charity Hands Across the Sea. The non-profit organization, founded by Harriet and Tom Linskey, is dedicated to improving literacy and teaching methods to students and educators in the eastern Caribbean. Having had the pleasure of meeting them both, i was so excited to interview Hannah and have her talk about their experiences in the Caribbean, where they are bringing innovative and modern teaching methods to some very deserving communities.

Posh Seven: Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for Hands Across the Sea? You were a well-respected teacher within Loudoun County. What made you want to make this type of change?
HK: Damian and I had been living the typical, suburban lifestyle when we realized that we wanted to make the most of life now before we were too old to live the adventures of our dreams. So many people we know wait their whole lives to buy a boat in retirement and sail to the faraway places they’ve always dreamed of. We both did not want to waste our lives—living for retirement, and we did not want to sail just for ourselves. Helping others makes us happy and brings us joy, so we wanted to sail with a purpose. And the Universe brought us an amazing opportunity to do just that!

After two years of planning and saving, we quit our jobs as public school teachers in Loudoun County, sold everything we owned, and moved aboard our sailboat, a 1985 TaShing Baba 40. Along with our trusty cat, Schnitzel, we sailed from Maryland (where our boat was docked) to Portsmouth, R.I., to volunteer and work for a charity organization called Hands Across the Sea.

In the fall of 2016, Damian and I became board members for Hands Across the Sea, which gave us opportunities to help with fundraising campaigns and other projects. With over 352 libraries created over the past ten years, Hands has successfully reached over 100,000 students with books. More recently, Hands has seen the significant needs of teachers within these schools too and wants to focus its efforts on supporting them as well.

What are the biggest challenges students in the Caribbean face?
HK: Most students in the Caribbean come from low-income households with very few books in the home and in their everyday lives. Unlike schools in the US, books—especially bright, engaging, new picture books and chapter books are hard to come by in the Eastern Caribbean. Many schools have been stuck in the “dark ages” with teaching practices and methods, so students have not been given many opportunities to choose books for themselves to read.

Another major challenge is the lack of teacher training in the Caribbean, especially after teachers enter the profession. Because of this, many teachers struggle to teach reading—a difficult skill that takes patience, perseverance, and creativity. Unfortunately, a majority of teachers in the Caribbean resort to archaic, rotememory methods of the past that often discourage young readers and critical thinking. Many of them want to be good teachers, but there is very little support to be creative or to try new things in the classroom.

What are some of the challenges you face as an educator in the Caribbean?
HK: Educators in the Caribbean face many challenges, because they too are living below the poverty line along with their students. Purchasing educational materials and having access to a reliable internet connection to download resources is minimal-at-best for these teachers. With little education themselves and the lack of on-going teacher training, these Caribbean teachers are in many ways on their own and resort to authoritarian methods of teaching, because this is what they are familiar with. Many educators do not try new ways of teaching like open-ended class discussions for fear of losing classroom management.

However, there is hope! Expectations from administrations are shifting; and even though governments often lack the funds to pay for teacher workshops and supportive resources, they are not opposed to it coming in from others! And the amazing part is— that when these teachers are given the opportunities to learn new teaching methods and incorporate books into their lessons, not only are they are responding with enthusiasm, but they are also going back to their schools and implementing what they’ve learned in their own classrooms!

Why is it so essential to receive donated books that are current and culturally appropriate?
HK: It’s essential that children in the Caribbean receive current, culturally appropriate books, so that they can connect with the characters, settings, and story lines. When a student identifies with a character or situation and culturally relates with the concepts unfolding in the plotline, students are more likely to read it, enjoy it, and learn from it! A colorful book relevant to a child’s life communicates, “Read me!”–rather than an old, ratty-book that turns children off to reading. Unfortunately, the state of many classrooms in the Caribbean has been the latter—with tattered, moldy, inappropriate books that have accumulated due to years of donation dumping by well-meaning people who haven’t quite realized that pawning off their unwanted books has caused more harm than good. The high-quality books and reading materials you’d expect to see in your child’s school library is what we’d like to see for more schools in the Caribbean. Hands Across the Sea is committed to sending only new, quality books from the world’s leading publishers that are culturally appropriate for the children in the Caribbean.

How closely do you work with the schools and educational systems within the islands?
HK: Hands Across the Sea is a unique organization because it works directly with schools. Each year the teachers from each school create a “wish list” with specific titles that they feel would be beneficial to their students, as well as many titles that their students are begging to read! Hands Across the Sea works in conjunction with the school systems in the Caribbean through locals on the ground called Literacy Links, who check on the libraries at each school, meet with the principals and staff, as well as link what Hands does with what the Ministry of Education is doing on each island. On its most recent project, called the Teachers Resource Guide, Hands Across the Sea has gained the support of US Aid and the OECS, both important partners for making this mission successful!

We talked about the challenges you face, now let’s hear about the rewards!
HK: I cannot begin to tell you the overwhelming joy I feel when I work with teachers who are eager to learn new, out-of the-box strategies and take creative risks, because they care about their students and want to make a lasting impact on future generations!

People are the reason Hands Across the Sea has made a lasting impact in the Caribbean. The building of relationships promotes learning and literacy, because we all have the same goal in mind: to transform students into lifelong readers who want to read for themselves—not just in school but also in all of life.

What do you miss the most upon your travels?
HK: The people I leave behind.

How can we help?
HK: Spread the word about what Hands Across the Sea has done and continues to do in the Caribbean! For ten years, Hands Across the Sea has been working hard to establish vibrant, sustainable lending libraries in schools across the Caribbean islands and has had actionable success! But we aren’t done yet! More schools exist that don’t have libraries and desperately need them; many of the newly-born libraries, still in their infancies, are in need of more titles to fill their growing shelves, and the libraries that do exist need to be maintained through careful care, organization, and replacement of worn-out books.

Hands Across the Sea needs donors to contribute—not only to the purchase and continued shipment of much-needed books each year—but also to fund teacher workshops that support teachers in the Caribbean. Motivational, hands-on teacher training is the key to inspire educators to use books in their classrooms through read-alouds, guided reading groups, free reading time, and other fun, interactive strategies that promote critical thinking and get students excited about reading for themselves!