In the cafeteria of Clinton Avenue School, 10 girls recited “Ruby Showed the Way” — a poem memorializing Ruby Bridges, one of the first black students to attend an all-white elementary school and a pioneer of nationwide desegregation.

At the end of the poem, each girl took a turn at the microphone:

“This poem speaks to me because Ruby never let fear make her fall.”

“She doesn’t let other people bother her.”

“It shows that you should have confidence in whatever you do.”

The poetry reading was part of a series of Black History Showcases performed by students at Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership — a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free literacy classes and other enrichment programming to New Haven youth from low-income communities. Across all four LEAP locations, students have spent Black History Month researching influential African Americans, culminating in a series of showcases. At LEAP’s Fair Haven North location, student performances included fun facts about George Washington Carver and a march to the sound of a Nelson Mandela speech, among others.

“My counselors and my children were working together beautifully, really hard to put this showcase together,” said Lee Osorio, LEAP’s Fair Haven North Site coordinator. “The overall purpose was to help our children understand that there are more historical figures, both who have passed away and are in history and individuals who are still alive today … Exposing our children to different individuals that they don’t learn about in schools.”

In preparation for the showcase, LEAP students worked under the guidance of their senior and junior counselors — college students and New Haven high schoolers who meet with their students after school, four days a week. Together, they discussed Black History Month, agreed on topics of interest in small groups and crafted speaking roles for each student. In particular, counselors helped their groups with Internet research for the showcases, aligning with LEAP’s commitment to technological education. For some acts, counselors also worked with students to make props and crafts for the showcase, such as cardboard jazz instruments, lettered posters and multi-colored drawings of famous African Americans.

The staff at LEAP is a central component of the organization. Counselors teach students LEAP’s literacy-based curriculum, give swimming lessons, organize computer science classes, lead camping trips and support athletic programming. LEAP is the largest employer of youth in New Haven, often training low-income students of color to be counselors. According to Osorio, LEAP counselors are crucial to the mission of LEAP: to empower and nurture New Haven youth from high-poverty neighborhoods.

“Our focus is to make sure that we are reaching out to as many children as possible with high school and university level counselors,” Osorio said. “We are young mentors in their communities, showing them that the world is a lot bigger than just their neighborhoods, that there’s a whole world out there that’s at their feet, that they just have to be willing to put in the work to … be able to reach it.”

When school is not in session, LEAP runs summer camp to combat learning loss and youth disengagement over vacation time. Last year, more than 300 campers learned to swim at LEAP’s summer camp, for which LEAP is currently hiring counselors and lifeguards. In 2017, LEAP programs served over 1,000 children — 97 percent of whom are African-American or Latino — through its academic-year and summer offerings.

Beyond extracurricular programming, LEAP also provides low-income students with other day-to-day needs, which they may not otherwise be able to access. With funding from the city, other community organizations and LEAP’s annual fundraisers — such as LEAP Year Event dinners and Julia’s Run —  the organization is able to finance prom dresses, books and fresh produce for its students. For teenage participants, LEAP also offers test preparation classes, college tours and scholarships.

“LEAP is tremendously thoughtful in everything that they do, which is exemplified in the details of their work,” said Ziad Ahmed ’21, a Timothy Dwight College community engagement fellow at LEAP. “LEAP is thinking carefully about what their students might need … LEAP is an organization that provides a space not only to dream — but also provides a space to make those dreams happen.”

However, in the face of state budget cuts, LEAP — like other New Haven nonprofit organizations — has been forced to reduce its offerings. Last year, the organization closed its Dwight-Kensington site.

According to senior counselor Tucker Johns, budget cuts and difficulties in the inner city have driven several LEAP locations to shutter in recent times. After working with LEAP for three years, Johns hopes to see more engagement and funding from the state. John’s coworker, Marshall James, who is also a senior counselor at LEAP, echoed this sentiment.

“I’m hoping we can get back to five sites and servicing 125 kids per site,” James said. “Within our community and within our neighborhoods, I think that LEAP is really needed. We have a lot of low-income parents who don’t have the time or the money to go to daycare.”

At the end of the Fair Haven North site’s showcase, a group of girls shared their dreams for the future, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Their goals included finishing school, going to college and helping others.

One of the LEAP students at Fair Haven North closed out her group’s act: “If you have a dream, follow it, chase it and never let it go. Just like Martin Luther King.”

Ruiyan Wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu