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Seafaring Couple Starts “Hands Across the Sea” Charity in Retirement

Category: Adventurous retirement

A New, Rewarding Life
By Tom (“T. L.”) Linskey with questions from Topretirements

At first, it didn’t sink in. Even though Harriet and I were sailing our new 46-foot sailboat, Hands Across the Sea, a Dolphin 460 catamaran, on the Rio Paragaucu in northeastern Brazil, it hadn’t sunk in that we’d made it—that we’d successfully made the leap from the working life to retirement life.

In the space of a single year back in 2007 we’d wrapped up our careers, sold our home in Massachusetts, stored our possessions, sold our cars, found a home for our cat, worked with our Brazilian boatbuilder to customize our new boat, and bought a boatload of equipment from solar panels to a watermaker, to go with it. It felt like a miracle how quickly the trappings of suburbia—home insurance, property taxes, traffic, mowing the lawn, blizzards, consumerism, the roar of media, the neighbors’ barking dogs at midnight—fell away astern. We were just as astonished by what was ahead—a second life with an open horizon, promising equal measures of freedom and challenge.

Hands across the sea

Harriet and students

What They Do Now, and How They Got Started
So, we found ourselves retired, “living the dream” on a sailboat capable of wandering the world, and asking: now what? Harriet is Type A, and I’m a B+—sure, we enjoy taking it easy and relaxing and traveling to new places, but we also need to accomplish challenging, meaningful things, and we weren’t sure how to do the latter in retirement. Then we remembered meeting a husband and wife, both medical professionals, on a 40-foot sailboat, when we were sailing in the Kingdom of Tonga about 30 years ago. They were island-hopping the South Pacific with sailbags of donated prescription glasses which they’d fit to locals during shoreside eye clinics, along with performing the occasional cataract surgery. They were having a great time putting their professional skills to use and collecting friends wherever they wandered. All of which had started us thinking: Was there a similar “something more” component that we could add to our retired life?
Gradually, it dawned on us that the “something more” would be to use the skills we’d developed in our careers (Harriet was a sales and marketing executive, I was an editor and marketing professional) to lend a hand to the islands we’d visit, all of them developing nations in need of assistance in many areas.

Retirement life with a focus
From scribbled notes we created Hands Across the Sea, a charitable organization that would help local schools. Taking it a step further, we incorporated Hands Across the Sea as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, to give supporters a tax-exempt way to donate cash, books, and teaching materials to Hands, which we would ship to where they are needed. In the four years since, Hands has taken off—and Harriet and I have a fulfilling new life to go along with it. As far as feeling rootless and unfocused in retirement….well, we are busy—very busy. Hands Across the Sea is a full-time job that fully challenges us, and getting great books to needy Caribbean kids and classroom supplies to their teachers—and seeing the smiles of joy on their faces—is the most personally rewarding thing we’ve ever done. When we started all this, Harriet and I had no idea how quickly and completely it would become our “second life.” Sure, it’s a lot of work, some of it not very elegant (sorting and packing thousands of books in a warehouse comes to mind). But the personal rewards—measured in hugs from Caribbean school children—are amazing.

hands across the sea

TL building bookshelves with helpers

Where they live and what they did before
We have retired from our “real” careers (Harriet was in sales at Harte-Hanks, I had my own marketing business that serviced sailing companies). We sold our house in MA in 2007 and have lived full time on our boat since. We spent Nov-May in the Eastern Caribbean, checking up on the schools we’re assisting, and working with teachers and U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers (31 of them, at last count). From June-Oct we are in the New England area, usually Newport, RI, (still on the boat), and we collect books (we buy new or near-new books at Friends of the Library sales) and sort and pack them for shipment in mid-Oct. Then we sail back to the Caribbean (9-day passage) to continue the hands-on work with schools. So, Hands Across the Sea is our life – we have no life outside of it.

What is Hands Across the Sea?
So what exactly is this thing we’ve created? Hands Across the Sea is a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable organization dedicated to raising the literacy levels of Caribbean children by assisting schools, libraries, reading programs, and youth centers in Caribbean communities. Since 2007, Hands Across the Sea has shipped over 51,000 books and 88 boxes of teaching resources to 53 schools (pre-school, primary school, and secondary school), reaching an estimated 13,000 Caribbean children in its Caribbean Literacy and School Support (CLASS) Program. Hands Across the Sea serves seven English-speaking island nations of the Eastern Caribbean: Anguilla, Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada.

Along with occasional volunteers, we work on-site in the Caribbean with teachers and U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers. Hands Across the Sea works in conjunction with local churches, schools, and community groups in the U.S. to raise cash and book donations, partners with the Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Sandals International Resorts. Three corporate partners that donate warehouse, trucking, and ocean shipping services.

Hands gets great books into the hands of Caribbean kids—high-quality new or near-new, age-appropriate, books with content and illustrations that engage Caribbean young people. Working with local school principals, teachers, and affiliated U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers, helps create and launch school libraries, remedial-reading programs, and a variety of other programs that give kids the tools they need to “learn to read, and read to learn.”

When the boxes of books from Hands arrive at a primary school, the scene is right out of Christmas morning—kids are ecstatic, they’re shouting and singing, they’re making lists of all their new favorite books they want to borrow and read. The books and school library (a lending library) make an immediate impact on the school, and their influence ripples throughout the community—touching parents, siblings, relatives—as students take the books home for a week. Suddenly, in homes which had previously never had books, parents and younger brothers and sisters want to read, too. Hands Across the Sea delivers much more than books: We give Caribbean children access to the excitement of discovering a great book—and with that the beginning of a lifelong love of reading, and the stirrings of the life-changing literacy skills of reading and writing.

So this must keep you pretty busy
Hands Across the Sea keeps us just as busy as our former careers did, in terms of number of hours and amount of energy put in. Since we started we have drawn no salary from Hands, but because we have been “discovered” we have realized that we need to scale up Hands to meet the need out there. We have drawn up a business plan and are seeking corporate, private, and foundation funding to grow the organization — hiring a program manager, warehouse hands, island managers (in the Caribbean), and funding other literacy-enhancing programs such as teacher training and workshops. It all sounds like work, and it is, but helping children and schools in the Caribbean is the most rewarding thing Harriet and I have ever done.

Do you ship the books, etc to the Caribbean or do you sail them down?
When we started Hands we assumed that we would sail the books down, but right from the first year we grew so much that we had to ship them down – last October we packed an 18-wheeler with 38,400 books on 25 pallets….18,000 lbs of cargo. We have three corporate “angels” who make the shipping possible: Harte-Hanks provides warehouse storage and services in Bridgewater, MA; AIT Worldwide provides trucking from MA to FL; Tropical Shipping provides ocean shipping to the islands. Without these generous companies we could not get books to needy kids in the Caribbean.

One thing about the books we ship: we send only new or near-new books (NEVER outdated, worn-out books or library discards). We buy our books new from Scholastic or Amazon, and purchase new or near-new books at Friends of the Library sales. Contemporary high-quality children’s books are the only way to engage and excite Caribbean kids about reading. Our Wish List.

What were your initial plans for retirement?
When we retired from our careers, we knew we wanted to do two things: go sailing, and give back. While in the Caribbean we sort of stumbled on the problem of child literacy and severely underfunded schools, and saw a way that we could make a difference in children’s literacy (reading and writing skills). Adult literacy in the Caribbean is at very low levels; about 80% of the population has only a 5th grade education, and many adults cannot read or write.

Would you recommend this kind of “giving” retirement for others?
To anyone who wants to give back in their retirement, we’d say “go for it” – it’s so personally rewarding to use your education and the skills you’ve built up over your career to help people in need or another such cause. Before we started Hands Across the Sea, we’d chartered in the Caribbean for about 30 years but we never saw the “real” Caribbean, just skimmed the surface like all holidaymakers do. But now that we’re involved, we realize that the true beauty and treasure of the Caribbean is not the sparkling warm water and the beautiful islands, it’s the children. We are rewarded for our work with hugs and great grins from kids and teachers. Who could ask for more?

Comments, anyone? Have you thought about starting or contributing to some volunteer project to help other people? Are you looking for ideas. Please provide your thoughts in the Comments section below.

For further reference:
Hands Across the Sea Video
Hands Across the Sea YouTube video
Hands Class Program

See more baby boomer retiree Profiles in this series:
What Sandy Learned in 8 Years of Visiting Active Adult Communities (in 2 parts)
How an Army Couple Became the Snowbirding Innkeepers
Jane and Jack: Staying in Place… And Very Busy!

hands across the sea

Boy with donated book

Hands across the sea

Kids with donated books

Posted by Admin on August 23rd, 2011


  1. […] to Live for Free as a Second Career Volunteer“, and Tom and Harriet Linskey, “Seafaring Couple Starts International Literacy Program“. We’ve also done multiple articles on people like Betty Fitterman who spent quite a […]

    by » The Ultimate Downsize – Get Down to a Suitcase and Hit the Road - Topretirements — September 8, 2014

  2. Is it possible to volunteer with your organization?

    by Martin Grissom — September 12, 2015

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