Above: LEAP for education cofounder and executive director Linda Saris (center) with brother and sister Josward Santana of Peabody (at left) and Idekelly Santana King of Lynn. Josward is a sophomore at Middlesex Community College and works full time at Citizens Bank. Idekelly graduated from Northeastern University in 2017 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
By Shelley A. Sackett
JANUARY 25, 2018 – SALEM – Linda Saris’ stellar resumé reads like every parent’s dream. A degree in economics and urban studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Chicago led to a career that culminated in the senior vice presidency of RSA Security, a fast-growing tech company with 1,300 employees and $320 million in worldwide sales. Her leadership and entrepreneurial skills reaped increasing responsibility and commensurate compensation.
Yet through her quarter-century career, she always felt something was missing. “As a mother and full-time employee who traveled a lot, there was little time for community engagement,” the Swampscott resident said. “I did work in support of women’s advancement opportunities in the workplace, but looking back, I should have done more.”
Her “wake up call to do something different” came in 2001, when the tech bubble burst after 9/11. Saris took advantage of a generous severance package and left the private sector to start a nonprofit with a mission to teach tech skills to young people and their parents.
“It was my time to give back and honor my family and cultural tradition of tzedakah,” she said.
Named Salem CyberSpace, the startup began as part of a larger nonprofit called North Shore Community Action Programs and served seven Salem students in 2003. Today, after going solo in 2004, it is known as LEAP for Education, and a $1 million budget allows it to reach over 800 students per year, primarily in Peabody and Salem.
With its mission to help low-income and first generation American students succeed in middle school, high school, and college, LEAP also educates parents on the college process and financing. It now has a staff of 17 and over 100 volunteers. Saris is understandably proud of LEAP’s 100 percent high school graduation rate and 85 percent college access and retention rates.
While LEAP continues to focus on teaching tech skills and emphasizes STEM – a curriculum based on science, technology, engineering, and math – it has adapted to changing demographics by also providing arts programs and English literacy for the growing immigrant population for whom English is a second language.
According to Saris, organizations like LEAP are especially important during this current administration. “LEAP helps to support, educate, affirm, and make feel welcome young people [and their families] from a variety of countries,” she said.
When new and longtime citizens meet and build connections across ethnic and cultural lines, Saris thinks the resulting familiarity and understanding creates respect, tolerance, admiration, and affection among a diverse citizenry.
“Those qualities are the antidote to prejudice, ignorance, and scapegoating,” she said.
Saris was raised in West Roxbury and attended Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Newton (now in Brookline), where she became a bat mitzvah in 1965 and attended Hebrew school through 11th grade. While her home life was “not overly religious,” her parents and temple educators stressed the importance of charity and community engagement.
As a high school student, she volunteered at ABCD in Dorchester, tutoring young children. “I talked incessantly about the inequities I saw in our community and my parents pushed me to put action behind my words,” she said.
Growing up during the 1960s empowered Saris. “It was a decade of citizen empowerment, of despair and of hope,” she said. “The events around me, my family, my Jewish cultural roots, all foreshadowed the path I decided to take.”
Her sister Patti Saris, older by 11 months, serves as chief judge of the federal court in Boston, and it is evident the sisters share views on immigration that are at odds with the current administration. Last September, Judge Saris issued a temporary order stopping the Trump administration’s deportation of Indonesians without due process.
At a hearing last week, The Boston Globe reported she compared the Indonesian Christians facing possible torture or death in their Muslim-majority homeland to Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazis on the St. Louis, a boat that left Germany with 937 passengers, mostly Jews, that was turned away by the US government in 1939. Many were later killed in the Holocaust.
“We’re not going to be that country,” Judge Saris said in court, according to the Globe.
“My sister has always been a source of inspiration and someone I always looked up to,” Linda Saris said. “She was very supportive when I changed my career. However, the drive to do what I did came from within me, with a lot of help from my family and the events of the day.”