Giving books—and the gift of reading

Chris Alexander put thousands of books into students' hands.

Courtesy Bruce Alexander

Courtesy Bruce Alexander

Chris Alexander put hundreds of Yalies to work tutoring New Haven students—and put thousands of books into students' hands. View full image

“Make sure you take a book when you leave!”

Regardless of what your errand might have been at the headquarters of New Haven Reads, executive director Christine Alexander would remind you not to leave empty-handed. Alexander, who died of breast cancer on June 26 at the age of 66, had a simple but powerful idea to help the lives of children in her adopted city: gather books and give them away. And gather volunteers to tutor the children who need help reading.

Starting in 2003, Alexander built New Haven Reads from a small book bank in the Chapel Square Mall into a nonprofit that gives away 100,000 new and used books a year (donated by individuals, community groups, and publishers) and tutors more than 450 schoolchildren every week. Her achievement did not go unnoticed: in 2008, she won the United Way’s national Community All-Star Award.

Having come to New Haven from Maryland in 1998 with her husband when he was appointed vice president for New Haven and state affairs, Alexander had access to people and resources throughout the Yale community. (Bruce Alexander ’65 still holds that title, along with that of vice president for campus development.) But it was through her own energy and enthusiasm that she enlisted a large cadre of Yale students, faculty, and staff to help at New Haven Reads; of the 350 current volunteers, about half are Yale-affiliated. She also got the university to provide space for the organization, which is now housed in three Yale-owned buildings in the Dixwell neighborhood.

A native of Colorado and a graduate of Duke University, Alexander worked as a VISTA volunteer in Washington, DC, with her husband in the 1960s. Later, she became a registered nurse and worked in pediatric asthma research at Johns Hopkins University before coming to New Haven. Besides her husband, she is survived by two sons, Matthew Alexander ’92 and Seth Alexander ’95; and four grandchildren.

Kirsten Levinsohn, the current executive director of New Haven Reads, says Alexander set an example that will endure. “There has always been so much optimism and such a feeling of opportunity here,” says Levinsohn, “and that was all through Chris and her determination to help the kids.”  


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