New Haven Sunday honored the rich and ongoing legacy of Christine Alexander, the beloved founder of New Haven Reads, who died at age 66 in 2011, by officially naming the corner of Bristol and Ashmun streets in her honor.
About 50 people including Mayor Toni Harp, former Mayor John DeStefano, Alexander’s husband Bruce, the vice president for New Haven and state affairs for Yale University, and three of his five grandkids — Hannah, Natalie, and Jeremy — were on hand to celebrate the founder of what Harp termed “New Haven’s most successful tutoring and book distribution program.”
As the afternoon sun shone brightly on the still-veiled new street sign high atop its post at the corner across from Scantelbury Park, New Haven Reads Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn recalled that within 15 minutes of meeting Alexander back in 2009, “I was hooked by her warmth, energy, and single-minded focus on helping as many kids as possible.”
With a passion for literacy as the fundamental gateway skill, Christine Alexander started distributing donated books out of a small office space in the Chapel Square Mall in 2001, recalled Bruce Alexander. When one of the handful of kids she was working with said he couldn’t read the books she had provided, the tutoring program began.
Today about 420 volunteers provide 572 kids with one-on-one tutoring through New Haven Readers. Another 50 pre-K and kindergarten kids get their reading started early at the organization’s four sites, said Levinsohn.
These sites include the corner headquarters building at Bristol and Ashmun, the kitty-korner community center housed in the Yale Police building, Science Park, and the newest facility on Willow Street.
“Some of our earliest students are now in college and coming back to tutor,” Levinsohn said to warm applause.
Longtime area newswoman Veronica Douglas-Givan, whose son is a New Haven Reads tutee, reminded the crowd that the organization is “more than an after-school activity. It show how we are as a community.”
The waiting list has the names of 70 kids. Levinsohn said if Alexander were present, she would have signed up at least half the audience to become tutors.
After the adults had spoken, Alexander’s grandkids read a poem they had composed in honor of their grandmother, using the format, most appropriately, of an attribute for each letter of her name: Cherishing; Happy; Ravenous Reader; Intelligent; Superstar: Terrific; Impressive: Nice; and Excellent.
“She was not a person who sought recognition,” said Bruce Alexander, “but she would have been very moved” by the occasion.
NHR Assistant Director Fiona Brandford reported that NHR has a $750,000 annual budget. It raises about half the total from 600 individuals, the rest from handful of grants from the city and state.
In the state’s cash-strapped recent years, its grant to NHR has dropped from $80,000 two years ago to $50,000, added Bradford.
The biggest fundraiser for the group is an annual spelling bee , which raises around $30,000.
After the sign was unveiledSunday and before people promenaded across the street for ice cream and socializing in Scantlebury Park, Levinsohn added: “The sign is a way for each child, tutor, or neighbor who walks under it to remember that the joy and power of reading can change lives.”