A place to bond

In a local running club, an alumnus finds his sons a haven in New Haven.

Jake Halpern ’97 won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Welcome to the New World, his series in the New York Times about a family of Syrian refugees.

I never thought I’d settle in New Haven. It’s not that I’m a city snob. I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and have a soft spot for post-industrial rust belt cities. As teenagers, my brother and I explored Buffalo’s abandoned factories and its derelict asylum, where vines crept across rusted bedframes and rainwater gushed down stairwells. That was our post-apocalyptic playground.

When I came to New Haven in 1993, I felt oddly at home. I liked wandering the city’s unused railroad beds and prowling through the old Winchester factory. New Haven was like Buffalo: a little beaten up, but deeply real. So when my wife, Kasia, was offered a fellowship at the Yale medical school in 2007, I was game. We bought a house in East Rock, a few blocks from Science Hill. Kasia biked to work. I walked our two little sons, Sebastian and Lucian, to the neighborhood public school every day.

East Rock, however, proved to be a cloistered world—a neighborhood the university had colonized. Almost no one I met had actually grown up there. No one ever said, “I knew your old man.” And I almost never encountered residents from the city’s other neighborhoods. In East Rock, we’re an enclave of haves surrounded by a great many have-nots; and because we’re almost entirely transplants, the divide is deepened. Of course, there’s always Halloween, when families from across the city come to our street for trick-or-treating; it’s a joyous occasion, but then it’s over.

This is probably how my experience in New Haven would have remained, if not for the fact that my sons love to run. If you live in the City of New Haven, and your kids are fleet footed, sooner or later word reaches you. There’s a club for them. It’s called the New Haven Age Group Track Club. It’s available for a small fee. And it’s open to any kid between the ages of six and 14.

Sebastian was nine and Lucian seven when they joined. They both opted for the distance team, which trains for races of 1,500 and 3,000 meters.  The distance coach is Che Dawson, a 44-year-old elementary school administrator with the bearing of a stern but caring father. He tells his runners, especially the younger ones, to look him in the eye when they speak to him. Usually, he can get them running with a nod of his head. And if, somehow, you miss this cue, he’s on you. I once heard him tell a boy of five or six, “This isn’t a museum—you’re not here to stand around and stare. Get going!”


When we first joined the club, the team was practicing at Amistad Academy Middle School. They didn’t have access to a proper track; the sprinters and hurdlers were training in the gym, while the distance runners were racing in the hallways, cutting tight corners and dashing past rows of lockers.

During his first practice, Sebastian kept to himself and seemed tentative. When he finally started running, he looked relieved, as if grateful to have some purpose. I eventually took a seat in the bleachers and chatted with the other parents, who hailed from every sector of the city and some of the distant suburbs. “This is the best club in the area,” said Chris Paragas, an engineer from the affluent town of Woodbridge. Another dad, whom I will call Harold, agreed wholeheartedly. (Harold would later tell me that he struggled to get his kids to some of the practices because he had perpetual car troubles. Not long ago, Harold’s car had died on the highway; he never retrieved it, because he couldn’t afford the impoundment fee.)

Later, Che Dawson spoke with the new parents. “If you’re just looking for something for your kid to do, this club isn’t for you,” he said, rather bluntly. But he was quick to add that the club isn’t one of those teams in which the talented kids are the only real players and the rest are just there to pay dues. “We coach every kid,” he promised.

When the practice came to end, all the runners gathered at the center of the gym. It was the most diverse gathering of kids I’d seen in New Haven. They assembled on their own, as if performing a ritual—which, in fact, they were. “Shout-outs!” someone called. “Shout-outs!” A few kids then offered words of encouragement to their teammates. Toward the end, one of the older boys said, “I got a shout-out for Sebastian. He really tried hard today!” Sebastian nodded, and did his best to appear nonchalant, but I saw a smile flicker across his face—a look of unadulterated joy. At the end of the session, the kids all huddled up, placed their hands together in the center, and shouted, at the tops of their lungs, “Family!”

“The kids are there for each other,” Dawson explained to me, recently. “You know, as adults, we often hate to do this. If I give credit to you, that means I am not getting credit. Here they learn: We can love and support one another.” The goal was for them to form a bond that transcended race, class, and age. On some level, the practicing and the racing were just a pretext, and even the coaches were ultimately superfluous. “In the end,” he told me, “Their network will be more important than us.”

A few weeks later, during one of his very first races, Sebastian fell hard on the track and was almost trampled by a pack of runners. He limped back to the sidelines, tears streaming down his face. Dawson let him be. Then one of the older kids walked over to Sebastian, placed a hand on his shoulder, and told him: “Don’t worry about it, Sebastian. The same thing happened to me when I was starting out.”

As a coach, Dawson is constantly pushing his runners. “You never want a kid to feel like they’ve arrived,” he told me. And he doesn’t hesitate to put parents in their place. During races, when I was inclined to cheer loudly, Dawson said to me—politely, but firmly—“You’re going to let me coach my athlete, right?” He’d stand by the side of the track, and every time Sebastian sped past, Dawson would call to him softly: “Wait for it Sebastian—not yet!” Then, on the final lap, he’d holler, “Now—go now, Sebastian! Now!” And my son would go. He would heed the call with a look of pure determination on his face. During those moments, there was a bond between Dawson and my son—a special sort of trust and respect—that I knew I might never quite have.

It was the same for all of the runners in the club. They wanted to live up to the standards of Dawson and the other coaches. On one of the team’s “Report Card Nights,” I overheard Dawson talking to a kid whose grades had dropped. “Listen to me,” Dawson told the boy. “You are a fast runner and a good kid. But right now I’m here to tell you that, in a few months, we’re going to be right back here—in this room—looking at your next report card. And we will hold you accountable. We expect better. Now what can we do to make that happen?”

The boy’s grades improved.


As the months passed, and I got to know the coaches and parents better, it became apparent that the team’s biggest limitation was the lack of a proper place to train. In good weather, they ran outside; but in the winter, there was no indoor track available on a regular basis. “Trying to run them in the streets, at night, is not a good thing,” said Major Ruth, the club’s president, who has been tirelessly coaching the team for 16 years. They needed a better facility for the middle and long-distance runners so the kids could take their running “to another level.” At one point, I suggested that perhaps the kids could run at Coxe Cage, the gorgeous indoor track next to the Yale Bowl. “That’d be amazing,” said a coach. But no one seemed to think it was possible. One longtime track mom smiled rather sadly and told me: “Yale will never let us in.” I didn’t reply, in part because I thought she might be right.

Dawson shared this skepticism. He had grown up in the apartments across the street from New Haven’s Union Station, in what he describes as the city’s most “infamous inner-city project.” From here, he and his grandparents, who raised him, witnessed the daily comings and goings of Yale’s students. He recalls his grandmother saying, “Look at these people walking around the way they do—not even looking when they cross the street—like they own the place.” For him, Yale was a separate world. He rarely ventured near campus and never stepped inside a Yale building. He was a strong student but didn’t even consider applying to Yale. “It seems ridiculous now,” he told me, “but as a kid, I did not even know Yale was a place where people from New Haven could go.” Many of the kids in the club, Dawson said, felt no connection to Yale. “Yale is one of the most prestigious places in the world, but the kids don’t take any pride in it—their parents don’t either—and that is a shame.”

His remarks depressed me. I’d been a rower at Yale, and I had participated in several outreach programs in which varsity athletes brought New Haven kids onto campus. I also knew that outreach was a priority for Tom Beckett, then Yale’s athletic director. On a whim, I e-mailed Beckett in the fall of 2016 and asked about Coxe Cage. He responded positively: it was possible. The challenge was finding a time that didn’t conflict with Yale’s team schedules. It took several weeks to work out the logistics, but then we had it: on Wednesday nights, from 6:30 to 8:00, the track was ours. Beckett and his coaches came through.

On our first night, as the kids walked into Coxe Cage, staring at its size and the pristine condition of the track, a hush came over them. They had been running down narrow school hallways for years. It seemed none of them could quite believe that this space was really theirs.

Throughout the winter, the team’s distance runners—kids from every neighborhood in New Haven—raced along the banked track of Coxe Cage. With time, they grew more comfortable and confident. And steadily, they got faster. In the fall, they traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to compete in the AAU National Championship. They won first place in the 13-to-14 age group.

In 2018, Tom Beckett retired. His successor, Vicky Chun, welcomed the team back to Coxe Cage. A tradition had begun. By now, when the kids arrived, they sauntered in—like they belonged. On one occasion, I saw a few of the newer members gawking at their surroundings. But in his characteristic no-nonsense fashion, Dawson didn’t let them ogle for long.

“Let’s get going,” he told the kids.

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