A sewage leak has destroyed over 300 books at a New Haven literacy nonprofit, putting in jeopardy its ritual end-of-year book giveaway.
That organization is New Haven Reads (NHR), a literacy-based nonprofit that collects books and offers after-school and Saturday tutoring to 500 New Haven kids in phonics and reading.
Earlier this month, Director Kirsten Levinsohn and several staff members arrived at NHR’s Bristol Street location to find that the main floor toilet had sprung a serious leak—and sewage was coming down into the basement, landing on hundreds of new books and the IKEA bookshelves in which they were stored.
Elm Campus Partners, the maintenance group that responds for the Yale property in which NHR is housed, responded immediately with cleanup teams. But it was too late: sewage had already claimed thousands of pages, and the books were covered with waste too toxic for them to be salvaged.
The books, over 300 fiction picture titles for kids ages 4 to 7, were intended for NHR’s end-of-year book giveaway. Three times a year, students are able to pick out two brand new books to take home with them, as a sort of reading rite of passage and gift from the organization. One takes place between fall and spring sessions, right around the holiday season. Another takes place at the end of a short, intensive summer session. A third—and the one that has staff scrambling—starts around June 5, as the annual session comes to a close.
Before the flood, the not-forprofit was ready for the giveaway, having spent most of the year fielding donations from sites including a Scholastic Warehouse in Danbury and building a reserve of books for 500-plus students it serves each year. In the older age groups, that’s still largely the case. But for younger readers, the leak wiped away all but 30 or so books.
“We didn’t lose everything, but we lost the most valuable books,” said Book Bank Manager Victoria Sanchez.
Now, the nonprofit is scrambling to find new fiction picture books before early June. Because of timing, Levinsohn, Sanchez and Assistant Director Fiona Bradford didn’t feel like they could ask for money. NHR celebrated its 15th birthday with a pay-to-attend party in March, and then raised $9,205 for its summer programs with The Great Give in early May. It’s already working towards a fall fundraiser, its celebratory spelling bee, in October.
“To ask people again, we were worried,” said Bradford.
Instead, they are turning to their tutors and community partners, and asking for networking assistance. As that June 5 date draws ever closer, Sanchez is trying to connect with publishers who might be able to donate two or three boxes of age-appropriate books. (That 4 to 7 age range usually covers pre-K to first or second grade.) She’s asking tutors who they know in the publishing world. She’s also thinking of a few locally-focused ideas, like a book buying program at Atticus, where customers can buy an extra book for NHR with their purchase.
If she has to, she said, “I’m going to set up an Amazon wishlist and just ask friends and family to buy off of it.”
Asked if people could also donate money specifically for the book giveaway, Bradford nodded her head vigorously. “Oh yes,” she said. She added that the giveaway, during which students get a reason to build their home libraries, is so fundamental to her that she will find resources if she needs to. But in a year when NHR’s financial future is uncertain, she’s hoping it won’t come to that.
“It’s fun,” she said. “They’ve worked so hard all session, and then they get to home a brand new book that’s theirs. This is like a gift to them at the end.”
She added that she thinks of the giveaway as different from weekly distribution, where students have chances to take a lightly used book home after each session. This, she said, is fully theirs. “You hear the spine crack, and you know it’s new.”
New Haven Reads is asking for help. To contact the nonprofit with a tip about a publisher, call 203.752.1923 or email Victoria@newhavenreads.org. To donate money or books, visit the website. It is also looking for metal storage cabinets, in case such a leak happens again.