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  • New Haven Land Trust

New Haven Builds Access To Literacy With "Help Your Shelves"

By: Kate Cebik, Kirsten Levinsohn, and Bradley Fleming

“Neighbors coming together to improve their communities, it’s wonderful,” New Haven resident David Budries reflected after a long and productive day. This past Saturday, a team of thirteen dedicated volunteers gathered at MakeHaven with MakeHaven’s woodshop facilitators. Their goal was to build 6 “Help Your Shelves” -- free book boxes that will be installed around New Haven.

The project has been over a year in the making, with Bradley Fleming of New Haven Land Trust, Kate Cebik of MakeHaven, and Kirsten Levinsohn of New Haven Reads meeting every couple of weeks to develop the idea from “that sounds cool, I wish someone would do that,” to “We can do that!”

The initial idea was for a MakeHaven workshop, but the team realized that partnering with other organizations could bring so much more life and benefit to the larger community.

“We had the books, and MakeHaven had a place to build the libraries,” Levinsohn recalls, “We wanted to make it happen.” They brought in the New Haven Land Trust, thinking the existing community gardens would be good possible locations for the boxes.

The team’s goals were to get these structures (similar to Little Free Libraries) into the neighborhoods with the most need, and also to ensure that they were wanted and cared for by the community. “We didn’t want to just build and drop off structures,” Cebik explained, “It was really important to us that the community wanted them, and took part in making it happen. The boxes will belong to the community, and the community deserves ownership.”

The team began accepting applications from prospective caretakers for boxes in neighborhoods across New Haven, and after reviewing and refining the applications, they gathered a list of the first six sites for the pilot program. These caretakers formed the core of Saturday’s build team.

Leslie Radcliffe, garden coordinator at the Truman Street Garden, arrived ready to roll. “We’re making it happen at MakeHaven!” she proclaimed.

The group, led by MakeHaven Maker Guru Lior Trestman and assisted by woodshop facilitators Clancy Emanuel and Jen Fremd, gathered to discuss the prototype Trestman had made and to learn how they would build their own. An hour later, the drills roared to life, the nail guns fired away, and a pile of lumber was quickly transforming.

The build team ranged from people who knew their way around a table saw to those who had never set foot in a woodshop. “That’s a big part of what we do at MakeHaven,” Trestman points out, “We say no experience necessary and we mean it. We are here to help all people get access to the tools and to learn how to use them.”

“We couldn’t have asked for a better group,” Fremd noted. “They were so motivated and invested,” Emanuel agreed. Fremd and Emanuel are two of the sixteen volunteers who help MakeHaven members learn the tools of the makerspace and keep their projects moving forward.

As the group finished applying primer, Mimi Cortes called out a reminder to “label these boxes!” She happily Sharpied “Truman Street Garden” on the bottom of her project. Each box is a little different, and each caretaker wanted to be sure they ended up with the box they’d built once the paint dried.

“It really was one of the best experiences of my life,” Kenya Adams Martin reflected on the efforts of all these different people coming together to believe in our city and the power of books."

“It was just as we’d hoped. People worked hard and are invested in the project. This project relies on community for success, and with a community this amazing, we feel really confident,” Cebik said at the close of the day.

Radcliffe referred to the build as “a day of fun and fellowship.” The group will be finalizing the build this week, and then will be working with local children and artists to decorate the boxes before they are installed. Volunteers working with New Haven Reads will work to keep the books stocked with books.

The builder/caretakers of the first round of Help Your Shelves are Leslie Radcliffe and Mimi Cortes from the Truman Street Garden; Jamilah Rasheed from the Field of Greens garden; David Budries and Kenya Adams Martin, building for Cedar Park; Victoria Smith and Kirsten Levinsohn, building for Scantlebury Park; and Sylvia Dorsey and Jason Dorsey (plus his adorable helper, son Judah), building for Garden in the Park.

If you are interested in becoming involved with the project, or donating to keep this project growing, please visit makehaven.org/help-your-shelves/.