Crowd members teared up on Monday night as a New Haven resident recounted her experiences with depression, and they laughed when another talked about his early love of Star Trek.

Nearly 80 community residents gathered at the Connecticut Arts and Technology Center at Science Park for the fourth monthly presentation of “Storytellers New Haven,” a new community speaker series. Lee Cruz, a community activist at the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, and Elizabeth Nearing, a theater professional at Long Wharf Theatre, shared personal stories about family relationships and how struggles in their early life have shaped their lives today.

“We really wanted to play with this idea that you can get past perception and stereotype, when you get to know people beyond your vision from a distance and start to hear some of the stories of their heart,” said Karen Dubois-Walton, co-founder of New Haven Storytellers and executive director of Elm City Communities.

Since moving to New Haven, Dubois-Walton said she has been struck by the cat that New Haveners tend not to interact across neighborhood lines. Dubois-Walton organized the first storyteller event last November with her husband, Kevin Walton, in hopes of building a more cohesive community.

At the event, Cruz spoke about the many occasions his family relocated during his childhood — a chain of moves that forced him to learn to read and write in Spanish in one stressful summer to avoid falling a grade behind in school in Puerto Rico. Cruz said the adversity he faced encouraged him to eventually embrace community service and activism.

Nearing shared a story about her relationship with her older sister, describing a childhood in which she struggled with mental health issues and felt that her sister was dismissive of her problems. But as she and her sister aged, she said, they gradually developed a less combative relationship, helping her realize that strong bonds can arise from formerly contentious relationships.

In the past few months, she said, after her father was diagnosed with a severe illness, the sisters have shared bonding experiences while taking care of his legal affairs.

One attendee, Tiffany Robinson, said she was moved by the stories, particularly Nearing’s description of her relationship with her sister.

“A lot of what you know about people comes from the stories they told you or the reactions to the stories you tell them,” said another attendee, Arnie Pritchard. “Stories are a very large part of how we understand each other and how we know where we’re coming from.”

Dubois-Walton said that since the storytelling events are open to the public, she hopes community members from all walks of life will turn up. So far, she said, the events have surpassed her expectations.

“When you hear people’s stories you both see commonalities and connections, you see difference and may begin to value that difference in a different way,” she said. “People become real and you see that humanity and all that beyond what your perception may be.”

The next Storytellers Event will be held on March 5.

Isabel Bysiewicz |