Students LEAP Into Halloween

 LEAP counselor face painting. Henry Fernandez Photos. 

LEAP counselor face painting. Henry Fernandez Photos. 

The line for LEAP’s haunted house wound up a flight of stairs, spilling out into the gymnasium above. It mumbled and pulsed and wiggled, the voices of LEAP’s grade school audience rising over the spooky bass sounds that came from the corridors below.

“Are you gonna’ go down there yourself? It’s dark down there!”

 A LEAPer gets ready to trick or treat. 

A LEAPer gets ready to trick or treat. 

 “Is it that scary?” “It’s not that scary?” 

“I’m gonna’ die—!”

LEAP’s Jefferson Street complex was packed with costumed kids and chaperones in attendance at their annual Halloween Festival Friday night. The neighborhood-based afterschool athletics and academic enrichment nonprofit organized trick-or-treating, pumpkin painting, cookie decorating, carnival games, and cameos by New Haven police and firefighters. LEAP’s high school and college-age faculty had also arranged their fair share of terrifying tricks to pair with these treats.

“Clear a path,” shouted Leiyanie Osorio, coordinator for LEAP’s Fair Haven North site. She shepherded the haunted house queue in towards the left-hand wall. “They’re going to want to come out!”

They came in one and twos. A young boy walked back up with magisterial self-composure, arms crossed, shaking his head repeatedly and smiling. “It’s too scary.”

A second scrambled up the stairs, doubled over—half on his hands and knees—two counts ahead of a squealing pack of friends. Their throaty, guttural “Aah’s!” and campy cries of “Never again!” were less expressions of genuine fear, and more playful rehearsals of scripts they’d likely seen on television serials or YouTube channels.

One girl, scooped up in her mother’s arms, pressed herself half against the lapel of mom’s black leather jacket.

“Did you like it?” mom asked, cocking her head inwards. The daughter drew her gums over her teeth, opening her mouth in a shy, silent “um-hum,” bobbing her head ever so slightly. Her eyes glimmered.

Osorio waved along the next ten victims. “No cell phone lights, no shoving, no pushing, no kicking! Have fun! Enjoy the ride!”

Aaron Copeland, Dixwell/Newhallville site coordinator, relayed his experience guiding a camper through. 

“I had to hold her hand, I had to calm her down,” said Copeland. “I had to tell her to remember that it was just counselors in masks!” The counselors hid atop the banks of personal storage lockers, peering ghoulishly down from up high. They slammed shut the rattling, metal doors towards opportunistic jump scares.

On one unlit stretch, “I couldn’t even see in front of me,” he recalled.

The section he described was a strange, acoustic sink. It trapped the thundering locker noises and defamiliarized them, making it seem like flashless charges of gunpowder were detonating in the dark. The carrying sound created the illusion that this night extended deeply and indefinitely.

Copeland found himself clutching awkwardly for the hand of the person in front of him while still holding onto the hand of his mentee. They pulled through, together.

 A LEAPer paints pumpkins donated by Melillo's Greenhouse and General Store in North Branford. 

A LEAPer paints pumpkins donated by Melillo's Greenhouse and General Store in North Branford. 

Meanwhile, Tucker Johns, a former counselor back to volunteer, was hard at work at a craft station. He supervised a group of students, ensuring that they didn’t mound their unfrosted snickerdoodles in an entire pipette’s-worth of hot red decal icing.

“Then, I’m going to take my boys out in the community,” he said. LEAP’s counselors and coordinators planned to escort students along the neighboring Lyon Street and William Street and gather sweets by sundown. Johns continued on to remember last year’s Halloween Festival.

“It was pretty cool. Once it turns dark, it turns into a dance party outside.” He indicated how all the LEAP executives joined in, loosening up. “It just sets a different tone for the night.”

 LEAP Counselors dance ChaCha Slide on Jefferson Street.

LEAP Counselors dance ChaCha Slide on Jefferson Street.

Johns joked that he was “pretty excited about getting my own candy,” once the Halloween Festival switched over to trick-or-treating. He recalled how he used to go camping with his old cohort at least once or twice a year. He viewed trick-or-treating in much the same light.

“It’s nice to see your groups interacting outside the classroom. I just try to take a step back and let them do their own thing!”

LEAP Chief of Staff Yakeita Robinson explained at length how the Halloween Festival continues to partner with nearby homeowners to curate a fun and safe route of vetted trick-or-treating stops. Friday night, participating residences were flagged with bright, lime-green flyers. LEAP prepositioned reserves of candy in the houses, to ensure that every kid would come back swinging a full plastic pumpkin bucket.

“We get one hundred percent of our candy donated from our staff and board members,” Robinson added. “They come with five pounds of candy!”

When asked what were the choice items in this year’s haul, Robinson paused. A pensive half-smile worked itself slowly across her face.

 One of the stops on Lyon and William Streets. 

One of the stops on Lyon and William Streets. 

“I would say: We have the Snickers, and then a ‘kiddy mix’ with lollipops and jawbreakers!”

For a good ten minutes, a thin, steady stream of LEAP-ers and their accompanying support staff processed out of the main offices, turning right down Jefferson Street. A few students peeled off, making a b-line for a NHPD interceptor parked opposite the building. Its strobes threw a purple haze against the surroundings, in time with the beat of LEAP’s amplified music. The beginnings of a dance party were gathering gradually along the curb.

Up at the intersection of Jefferson and Lyon, Aaron Copeland’s group clambered away from a porch. Several students had congregated near the cab of a parading aerial tower truck, pumping their fists and encouraging the firefighters to blow their horn. A girl floated by, mesmerized in a sugar daze.

“That tastes like—raspberry,” she murmured to no one in particular.

Copeland ministered to one of his boys, who wondered where to go and what to do next. Was that it? Was it over?

“Well, have you been to those houses,” asked Copeland, pointing northeast down Lyon Street.

His LEAP-er broke into an goofy, incredulous scream. “There are more houses!?”