This Thursday, Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership will kick off the 24th iteration of its LEAP Year Event — an annual series of fundraising dinners featuring diverse guest speakers. This year, the fundraiser includes a roster of 31 dinner events that collectively cover a wide range of topics — from the history of pizza in New Haven to astrophysics.

All proceeds from the dinners will directly benefit LEAP, a local nonprofit that provides free after-school enrichment programming to youth from low-income neighborhoods in New Haven. Over the last four years, LEAP has suffered a 60 percent reduction in state funding. According to Rachel Kline Brown, director of development at LEAP, the organization hopes to use funds raised from this year’s event to sustain and grow the nonprofit’s various programs, which serve over 1,200 children and employ over 200 youth counselors every year.

“These events have become a cherished New Haven tradition, offering participants an evening of camaraderie, fine dining and inspiring conversation with extraordinary people, and a chance to make a difference in the lives of children and youth in New Haven’s high-poverty neighborhoods,” Susan Kerley, chair of the LEAP Year Event committee and a LEAP board member, wrote in a press release.

On Thursday, participants will gather at a two-hour reception and book signing with the guest speakers at the Hopkins School. Following the reception, hosts and attendees will disperse to 27 smaller, individual dinner events. Each dinner is limited to 12–30 guests — an intentional choice that allows for more intimate conversations, according to Kline Brown. Four additional dinners will take place March 2.

During the dinners, guest speakers donate their time to present their work and interests. This year’s speakers include Cristina Rodríguez — deputy assistant attorney general under the Obama administration and a professor at Yale Law School — who plans to discuss immigration law, as well as Marcella Nunez-Smith — director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center at Yale Medical School — who will talk about access to health care among vulnerable populations.

“Our goal … is to have a real range of topics, of guests of honor so that people find something that they’re interested in,” said Kline Brown. “We try to have a range of speakers in terms of subject — the arts, politics, current events. … Our hope is to also have a range in terms of race and ethnicity and gender.”

Some dinner events will be highly interactive. Stephanie Wiles, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, and James Green, the Gallery’s curator of African art, are planning to give a tour of the gallery’s African collection in lieu of a standard presentation. After the tour, guests of the event will join Wiles and Green for a discussion at the Union League Cafe.

“I love LEAP’s approach of teaming up college and high school students — both during the school year and the summer — to work with younger kids helping them with schoolwork and extracurricular fun projects,” Wiles wrote in a statement to the News. “Everyone benefits from mentors, and LEAP deeply understands that these kinds of partnerships are key to success in learning, encouraging friendships, and building communities.

Hosts of the dinner events donate their space, energy and food for each party — at no expense to the local nonprofit. Most hosts are New Haven community members, many of whom have been supporting the annual fundraiser for multiple years. Many are Yale affiliated, such as Claudia Rankine, professor of poetry, and David Evans, the head of Berkeley College. Some local restaurants, including Union League Cafe, Kitchen Zinc and Mory’s, will also host this year.

Gordon Geballe and Shelley Geballe, faculty members at the School of Forestry & Enviornmental Studies and the School of Public Health, respectively, said that they have hosted too many times to count. The Geballes have been supporters of LEAP since the organization’s founding, and their son worked at LEAP during his time at Yale. This year, they will welcome Mark Simon from Centerbrook Architects to discuss upcoming developments at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

“It’s fun to renew acquaintances, and it’s fun to make friends with people,” Gordon Geballe said. “It’s a really nice social get-together organized around this fundraising event. [The event draws] 400 people, but you feel like you’re going to something with only 20 people. That’s the charm of it.”

This year, LEAP hopes to raise $200,000 — up 33 percent from last year’s event, which generated $150,000 for the organization. According to Kline Brown, LEAP has sold out all dinner events for the Thursday dinners — at least 500 tickets.

LEAP runs five community sites: Hill, Dixwell, Dwight-Kensington, Fair Haven and Newhallville. The LEAP community center is located at 31 Jefferson St.

Ruiyan Wang |

Correction, Feb. 26: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified James Green as a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though he used to work at the Met, he currently serves as the Yale University Art Gallery’s African art curator.