NHR founder’s vision lives on

Christine Alexander came to New Haven in 1998 determined to make the city read.

She came in ’98 when her husband, Bruce Alexander ’65, was appointed the University’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs. Bruce Alexander said he remembers how his wife cited literacy statistics from urban areas across the country. Saying she knew she had to act, she founded New Haven Reads in 2001, an organization that provides free books and tutoring to the New Haven community.

In the decade that followed, New Haven Reads distributed over 750,000 books to the community and provided thousands of hours of tutoring to local students, all under Alexander’s leadership. But while Alexander, described by those who knew her as a dedicated and modest woman, led the fight for literacy in New Haven, she was also fighting her own personal battle against metastatic breast cancer. After a decade, the disease took her life on June 26. She was 66.

A memorial service to honor her life will be held Saturday at 9:30 a.m. in Battell Chapel.

Bruce Alexander called his late wife’s organization the ideal union of town and gown.

“It’s been my own experience that organizations like this are typically built around a person with a lot of passion, who is effective and who works hard,” he said. “Chris had all of those qualities.”

In June 2010, Kirsten Levinsohn joined New Haven Reads as co-Executive Director and since Alexander’s passing has taken the reins as Executive Director. Levinsohn said she remembers Alexander as a passionate, dedicated literacy advocate whose work for New Haven Reads never stopped.

“She was always recruiting. If she didn’t come home from a dinner party with at least one more tutor, it wasn’t a successful evening,” Levinsohn said. She added that even when Alexander was confined to a hospital bed in her last months, Alexander recruited the nurses to work as tutors.

Indeed, literacy issues were a lifelong passion for Alexander. As an undergraduate History major at Duke University, she tutored young people in Durham, N.C., and served on the boards of numerous organizations working on children’s issues throughout her life.

In its first 10 years, New Haven Reads has expanded to an organization of over 400 volunteers that serves around 475 students each week and distributes more than 100,000 books each year, Levinsohn said. Yale students comprise around 130 of those volunteers. As the coordinator of the organization’s Yale Reading Corps, Steven Banks ’12 works at New Haven Reads as part of a federal work-study program. After working with the same students for several years, he said, tutors often build relationships that extend beyond the books.

“When you have minority students, male students, without a strong father figure in the home, the mentors can really help out,” Banks said, adding that it is not uncommon for tutors to discuss economic issues with students.

This was part of Alexander’s mission for the program — more than a tutoring program, Levinsohn said, New Haven Reads was to be a mentorship program that empowered underserved young people in New Haven. She added that though it has been difficult without Alexander around, the organization plans to keep expanding in the years to come.

“The work is important, and it will continue,” said Levinsohn.

In addition to her husband, Chris Alexander is survived by her two sons — both of whom work in education — two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.

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