Courtesy of LEAP

Children across New Haven enrolled in the Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership program, known as LEAP, read about community gardens in Harlem that were created to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables. On Tuesday, those children were able to bring the concept to New Haven. 

They planted seeds in soil on biodegradable trays to bring them home for their families.

Such interactive literacy-based activities are one of the cornerstones of LEAP’s mission of empowering children from historically disinvested communities in New Haven through afterschool and summer camp programs. 

“Created in 1992, by a team of community activists and educators… [LEAP] was really then and still now about addressing equity and equity in terms of opportunity, giving young people who are from low-income neighborhoods in New Haven a chance to become the leaders that we believe that they can be,” said Rachel Kline Brown, director of development and communications at LEAP.

Reaching over 1,000 young people from age seven to 24 annually, LEAP serves six low-income and historically Black and Latino neighborhoods in New Haven through programming in community schools and in their community center in Wooster Square. As these neighborhoods have child poverty rates ranging from 35 percent to 58 percent, all programming for younger children is completely free. 

Utilizing a peer-to-peer model, LEAP hires over 200 teenagers and young adults to serve as mentors and counselors in their programs, making the organization the top youth employer in New Haven. One-third of the counselors participated in LEAP as children, a trend that Kline Brown attributes to counselors wanting to pay the benefits they received at LEAP forward. 

Jacquan Brooks, a former LEAP kid, said the engaging curriculum at LEAP made him feel “special.”

Brooks, who now works as a senior counselor for the program, praised LEAP for investing in the education and well-being of children. Believing that showing a consistent and genuine love to “his kids” is helpful for their development, Brooks said he begins each day by dishing out hugs in the cafeteria. 

Looking back to his childhood, Brooks notes that there would not have been many activities to keep him and his friends occupied if it were not for LEAP. Brooks explained that before he enrolled in LEAP, he did not feel safe spending time outside once night fell in his neighborhood because it was “very dangerous.” But with LEAP, once it got dark during the school year, program staff would walk children home. 

“So, we got a chance to still be able to enjoy ourselves while the nighttime is falling,” Brooks told the News. “I just feel like growing up in the inner city, it’s hard having very little things to do as a young kid… I [feel] like LEAP is just the place because, not having anything to do, you go to LEAP, you go swimming, you [get] to be around your friends for a couple hours.”

Later this month, the annual LEAP Year fundraising event — which itself features 23 smaller events — will take place with the hopes of raising $375,000 of this year’s $5.6 million budget. A majority of the fundraising events will take place on Feb. 23. The keystones of the LEAP Year event are smaller themed dinners hosted by several individuals throughout New Haven. Each of these will invite a guest speaker and community members to engage in discussions on topics ranging from former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to unequal treatment, heart diseases across races and access to literature in prisons. 

Nicole Jefferson ’22, communications coordinator for LEAP, described these dinners of 15 to 20 people as an “intimate” setting for community members to learn something new and learn more about LEAP. 

“One thing that is really unique about [the events] is how personal [they are],” said Jefferson. “You really feel like you get to know the other guests who are there. You also feel like you get to know the speaker. And so I think that the event itself is really reflective of our values of community.”

LEAP will also run virtual events on Zoom. All proceeds from ticket sales will go towards funding the afterschool and summer programs with discounted tickets offered for first-time attendees.  

LEAP separates programming by age. Seven to 12-year-olds participate in literary-based programs, as well as coding, art and physical activities. The Leaders In Training  initiative provides leadership-based training and programming in confidence and self-expression, offering a stipend for 13 to 15-year-olds. Sixteen to 18-year-olds serve as junior counselors, where they help run afterschool and summer programs. Meanwhile, they receive resume writing support, interview training and assistance navigating the college process. Finally, in addition to working as senior counselors and receiving free summer housing, 18 to 24-year-olds participate in professional and leadership development and financial literacy workshops.

Additionally, LEAP provides swimming lessons for children at their Jefferson Street location. Kline Brown said that teaching LEAP kids how to swim is a priority given the high drowning rate for young Black children. Black children aged five to 19 drown at a rate five times higher than their white peers. Kline Brown also hopes that this initiative helps make swimming, which she describes as a “very white and expensive” sport, more accessible. 

For Kline Brown, hiring counselors who have similar backgrounds to the children in their programs is “fundamental” to their model and allows LEAP to provide opportunities for growth and responsibility to the “leaders of tomorrow.” With the rise in Connecticut’s minimum wage in recent years, LEAP hopes to raise more funds so they can continue to offer competitive wages to their counselors at $15 or $16 an hour. For LEAP, this amounts to $100,000 extra per each employee. The program did not fire or reduce the wages for any of their counselors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We decided not to cut any of our staff or counselors during COVID-19 because, with surveys, we’ve found that many of them were using that money for their families, to contribute to their family income or didn’t have a lot of other ways to earn money,” said Kline Brown. “It’s a bit of a luxury to be able to do an unpaid internship.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the in-person attendance rate remained upwards of 90 percent for the 13 to 15-year-old cohort, according to Kline Brown. She said she believes this number testifies to the popularity of LEAP and its importance to young people during a “difficult time.”

Recently, LEAP has added a new site in the Ross/Woodward School, expanded its curriculum to include books with more characters of color and characters of different nationalities and added a music production class. Plans for renovating the community center in Wooster Square are also underway to make the space safer and more accessible.

LEAP serves children in the New Haven communities of Dixwell, Dwight-Kensington, Fair Haven, the Hill, Quinnipiac Meadows and Newhallville. 

Laura Ospina covers Yale-New Haven relations and the Latine community for the City desk. Originally from North Carolina's Research Triangle, she is a sophomore in Branford College majoring in Political Science.