Sara Tabin

The local literacy nonprofit New Haven Reads celebrated its 15th anniversary with a benefit held at Sterling Memorial Library on Thursday afternoon.

Founded in 2001 out of New Haven resident Chris Alexander’s garage, New Haven Reads now serves nearly 500 children a week — a milestone that organizers celebrated with speeches and a congregation of former students, current volunteers and others who have helped shape the nonprofit.

“We haven’t reached the summit yet,” said New Haven Reads tutor Stacy Spell in a speech at the event. “[There are still] great gains to be made.”

By 2002, the book bank, which was originally funded by Yale University’s class of 1995, moved to its main location on Park Street. Soon after, the nonprofit launched its tutoring program, where children who read below their grade level are matched with tutors.

Mayor Toni Harp spoke at the event, thanking the nonprofit for helping to create a more literate New Haven. Reading, she said, is a cornerstone of society and the foundation of learning. Harp also read a new city declaration that proclaimed March 30, 2017 as “New Haven Reads Day.”

The event featured one of the six surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence from its first printing displayed in a frame. It was lent to New Haven Reads for the event by New Haven resident Dorothy Hurt and New Haven bookseller William Reese, who helped cosponsor the event along with an anonymous donor. Other organizations and individuals including Wave Gallery and Lyn Bell Rose, head of design at the Yale Center for British Art, also contributed to the event.

Spell, the tutor who gave a speech, is one of five New Haven Reads volunteers who have been with the organization for over a decade and who were honored at the benefit. He said his work with the organization was one of his greatest joys.

Kate Coleman, a volunteer book bank receptionist who has been with the program for 14 years and attended Thursday’s event, said she has stayed with NHR because she enjoys her work and the children. Students often come in “dragging their feet” and claiming they do not need tutoring, she said, but within a few weeks they are eager to meet with their tutors.

Three former New Haven Reads students who volunteer with the organization also attended the benefit. Sally Thach, for example, is now a senior at Amity Regional High School, and said she first enrolled in the program when she was five years old, remaining until seventh grade. Now, she has volunteered with New Haven Reads for two years.

Thach said she spent a few years in China as a young child and fell behind in English learning. Her mother’s English, she added, was not at a high enough level to assist her. New Haven Reads helped her learn to read and to understand American culture through books, Thach said.

Jailene Garzon, another New Haven Reads alum, said she also had a bilingual childhood, as she grew up in a household that primarily spoke Spanish. The Gateway Community College freshman said she was enrolled in New Haven Reads from third to 10th grade. She added that she chose to volunteer because she saw it as a way to give back to New Haven Reads.

Bradford credited the University for its support for New Haven Reads’s mission. Besides providing a venue for the benefit, she said many of New Haven Reads’s tutors are affiliated with the University. Additionally, Yale owns two of the nonprofit’s locations and co-owns a third, Science Park. Yale allows New Haven Reads to use these locations free of charge, Bradford said.

New Haven Reads Board Chair Heather Calabrese said education is currently facing a challenging time in the country, as federal and state funding are being shifted away from education. For example, she noted that New Haven Reads was supposed to receive an $80,000 grant from the state, but that grant was significantly cut. It was only with the help of state Sen. Gary Winfield, who is also a New Haven Reads board member, and other state legislators, that the nonprofit was able to secure $37,500 of the promised $80,000, New Haven Reads Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn said.

In 2016, New Haven Reads had 409 volunteers tutoring 479 students.