Randall Beach: Two ways to help your community: tutor a kid, rent a movie

What does the organization New Haven Reads have in common with Best Video Film & Cultural Center? Both are key community resources and both need your help.

Yes, and both of them started in humble surroundings, have grown through the years but continue to rely on public support for their survival.

New Haven Reads began in a garage with a small collection of books and the energy of Christine Alexander.

“Chris was troubled by the shocking lack of literacy in our city,” said NHR Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn during the recent 15th anniversary celebration for the nonprofit at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library.

“And so Chris came up with a simple but brilliant idea: why not collect books for people who no longer need them and give them to people who need them?” Levinsohn said.

She noted it’s exciting to see a child come in and pick up a book. “For many kids, these are the first books they own.”

There is a second important component of New Haven Reads: lining up a tutor who will teach that kid how to read the book.

“A child who can’t read often becomes an adult who can’t read,” Levinsohn noted. “Once you learn to read, it changes everything.”

Every week more than 500 children sit down one-on-one with volunteer tutors at four NHR sites.

The tutors find the experience as rewarding as do the students. My wife has been a NHR volunteer for the past five years. Every time she comes home from a session, she is feeling great, talking about the wonderful boy she is teaching.

Stacy Spell, another volunteer, spoke at the anniversary gathering. “One of the greatest joys I’ve had is New Haven Reads,” he said. “To watch their confidence build!”

He noted many of those kids have gone on to college.

“Christine Alexander would definitely be proud of the ongoing legacy of New Haven Reads,” Spell added. She died in 2011.

Spell and four others were honored at the anniversary event for 10 or more years of volunteer service. The awards also were given to Ethel Berger, Kate Coleman, Jerry Waxman and Mary Barnes.

Several former NHR students were at the celebration. Colby Galberth, now a senior at New Haven Academy, was shown in a video that was screened.

“I would describe it as extraordinary,” he said of NHR. “You can get free books and you don’t have to pay to come here. It’s one of the best programs in Connecticut.”

Nicole Gamble, one of the parents shown in the video, cried as she described how NHR has helped her family. “Thank you, Chris,” she said.

There is a long waiting list of kids who need a tutor. You can sign up via http://newhavenreads.org/home/get-involved/volunteers.

Financial donations also are welcome. Levinsohn said state funds that have gone to NHR probably will be reduced. “These losses could have a dramatic effect on us.”


Best Video began in a 350-square-foot storefront in the Spring Glen section of Hamden in May 1985 when Hank Paper assembled about 500 movies (on VHS format) and offered them for rental.

Those were the days when there were many independent film rental places as well as chains such as Tommy K’s and Blockbuster.

They’re gone now. But Best Video remains, now at 1842 Whitney Ave., still in the Spring Glen neighborhood.

Its amazing film archive, which has grown to more than 35,000 titles (mostly on DVD and Blue Ray) is a treasure for our area. But not enough people take advantage of it.

My wife and I still enjoy going there to scan the shelves and pick out a movie, often with input from the knowledgeable staff. In addition to the latest releases, the categories include: TV series, British series, kids’ features, drive-in cult films, Elvis Presley, Shirley Temple, opera, Westerns, science fiction, crime/gangsters, comic book heroes, stand-up comedy, political documentaries, staff picks and “Oscar losers” that should have done better, such as “The Big Chill,” “Breaking Away” and “Amistad.”

You get the picture.

A couple of years ago, Paper sold the business, which is now a nonprofit. But he still comes in often. I bumped into him there several days ago and we talked about that film archive which he began building more than 30 years ago.

“Half of this stuff you can’t find anywhere,” he said. “Not on Netflix, not on Amazon.”

Hank Hoffman, Best Video’s programming director, has expanded the mission by offering workshops for local high school student filmmakers and making it an evening spot for live music. He calls Best Video “a gathering place for the local community. When so much of life has gone online, this is a brick and mortar place to meet people face-to-face.”

But we can’t assume Best Video will survive. It’s always a financial struggle. We have an opportunity to support it from 8 a.m. on May 2 through 8 p.m. on May 3 via The Great Give, New Haven County’s nonprofit online fundraiser spearheaded by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. (Go to TheGreatGive.org and find BVFCC.)

As the Best Video flyer says, “Our continued existence depends on your generosity.”

Contact Randall Beach at rbeach@nhregister.com or 203-680-9345.