Blue and orange balloons dotted Scantlebury Park, and a blooming cherry blossom tree greeted New Haven residents as they milled about a tiny intersection on an exceptionally beautiful Sunday afternoon.
The gathering marked the renaming of the intersection of Bristol and Ashmun streets after Christine Alexander, founder of New Haven Reads, who died of breast cancer in 2011. Since 2001, Alexander’s organization has striven to foster a love of reading and to increase literacy among New Haven children by providing tailored tutoring and a community book bank. The Bristol and Ashmun corner is right next to the inaugural New Haven Reads center, which was the first of four in the Elm City.
“Chris believed in the world of possibilities that would open up to children who learn to love books,” New Haven Reads President Heather Calabrese said. “We hope every child, every tutor and every neighbor might walk under the street sign and remember Chris.”
New Haven Reads was founded at the turn of the millennium, at a time when reports were yielding troubling findings about literacy: Two-thirds of the city’s adult population read at a level below that of a third grader. One of the suggested solutions was a book bank, and Alexander took charge of the initiative along with an advocacy campaign.
What started as a book bank evolved into a comprehensive literacy program that incorporated one-on-one tutoring to help children read the books that they borrowed. Yale was heavily involved in the process, providing rent and utilities for the organization’s offices. Alexander was the late wife of Yale Vice President of State and New Haven Affairs Bruce Alexander ’65, who briefly spoke at the event.
Today, New Haven Reads is a center of learning where hundreds of books are handed out every week, and 572 children are tutored by 375 tutors after school and on Saturdays, according to Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn.
“Within 15 minutes of meeting Chris in 2009, I was hooked by her single-minded focus of helping as many kids as possible,” Levinsohn said. “If she were here today, she would have convinced half of you guys to volunteer by now.”
Mayor Toni Harp, who also presided over the ceremony, noted that Christine Alexander had founded “the city’s most successful mentoring and book reading program,” and described her as a distinguished community leader and champion of civic responsibility.
New Haven Reads is an organization dedicated to children, so it was only fitting that the naming featured the youth who Alexander helped in large and small ways. Her two eldest grandchildren, ages 10 and 8, recited a poem they had written.
Jayvon Douglas-Givan, an eight-year-old boy who has been a member of New Haven Reads for two and a half years, was accompanied by his mother and gave a speech with her about Christine Alexander.
“New Haven Reads is a family,” Veronica Douglas-Givan said. “When I met the founder, I fell in love with her vision, and I thought ‘If I have a child, I want him to go to New Haven Reads.’”
When Jayvon Douglas-Givan began to develop a stutter, Veronica Douglas-Givan said, she was concerned and looked to New Haven Reads for institutional support. She emphasized the organization’s familial environment, where her son bonded with his tutor, eventually inviting the tutor to Grandparents’ Day at school.
New Haven Reads distributes over 100,000 books each year.
Nicole Ahn | firstname.lastname@example.org