Founded in 2001 by Chris Alexander as a community book bank, New Haven Reads has grown so that every week it hands out hundreds of books and tutors more than 500 children.
“Remember that they are only books; the people are what are important.”
Chris Alexander’s advice to a coworker in the early days of New Haven Reads reflects the holistic attitude and unwavering dedication she brought to helping children and adults learn to read.
“Chris was interested in literacy since before I knew her,” says Bruce Alexander, Chris’s husband and the Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs at Yale University. “She tutored students in Durham during college, and her VISTA project included working on a literacy project in conjunction with high school equivalency programs.”
Trained as a pediatric nurse, Chris continued in literacy education when the Alexander family moved to New Haven in ‘98. Her interest in making books easily accessible to the community prepared the ground for a citywide literacy initiative called New Haven Reads that emerged in 2001. That year, city leaders held a meeting in reaction to the latest testing results in New Haven: two-thirds of the adult population read below a third-grade level. Don Levy, then manager of the Yale Medical Bookstore, suggested a book bank. The mayor asked Chris to coordinate both the advocacy campaign and book bank.
“Chris took the ball and ran with it,” says Doss Venema, Executive Director, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven. She set out at once to make the ‘New Haven Book Bank’ a warm, welcoming place. Even having books around the house can increase literacy, so the idea was to ensure that people from all walks of life could have ready access to free books they could keep.
Chris coordinated a year-long public campaign of literacy displays, story times, book drives, photo contests and volunteering to stress the importance of literacy and encourage reading throughout Greater New Haven. When the campaign came to a close, Chris was determined to keep the book bank a permanent part of the New Haven community. In fall 2002, the book bank – then largely funded by the Yale Class of 1955 – moved to a new Yale-provided location on Park Street, where it continued to provide a place for people to come in, relax, and find a book.
Soon after the move to Park Street, a homeschooling mother asked for help teaching her children to read. Chris was never someone to say no when someone needed help, and soon around twenty children were coming for tutoring, which Chris would provide in her tiny office in a back room.
“We all chipped in to tutor,” says Maud Sandbo, a volunteer who soon became book bank staff. “We had lots of Yale students who helped out and they soon started a book club for the kids.”
Somehow word got out in the schools and more children started coming in, saying, “I need help.” Chris began to research literacy methods and gather tutoring materials and application forms and attendance standards for tutoring started to appear.
Even as tutoring services started to grow, the book bank flourished. A January 2003 news article highlighted the book bank and its unique, no-cash-register approach. Book bank patrons included children, teachers, homeless people, and immigrants, all of them warmly welcomed and provided with quality free books to keep, leaving many people wondering, “What’s the catch?” But Chris had decided early that New Haven Reads’ services would be free and accessible to the whole community. As demand for books and tutoring grew, Chris worked tirelessly to incorporate New Haven Reads as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, creating in 2005 a board of directors and retaining the original campaign logo.
“Chris was always confident that things would work out,” said Maud. “Even when a depressing school report was released or the number of students waiting for tutoring continued to climb, Chris was not the type to sit and worry; she simply continued to check things off her multiple-page to-do list and stayed positive, galvanizing people around her to do the same.”
Now, more than ten years later, her legacy to the Greater New Haven community is the transformation of a powerful idea to a thriving center of literacy. Those in which she has instilled her vision will continue to work to ensure a sustainable model that will provide quality books and tutoring to as many as possible within our community.