doors: C.O.C.O.A. House founder Rachel Graham.
Photo by Ellen Descisciolo
on the Hill
College tutors and kids from a tough Schenectady neighborhood
come together for an after-school program—and come away
with new perspectives on their places in the world
guys, do you know what a pun is?”
Kreuter quizzes his opponents during an educational game
of Scrabble at C.O.C.O.A. House (Children of our Community
Open to Achievement), an after-school tutorial program for
underprivileged children located in Schenectady’s notorious
Hamilton Hill neighborhood. Kreuter, a junior at Union College
and a C.O.C.O.A. House tutor, takes advantage of the popular
board game to teach Kwame Robinson and other students some
new vocabulary. Pointing out that Shakespeare frequently
used puns in his writing, Kreuter attempts to explain the
word “pun” by using a golf joke as an example.
The kids didn’t get it at first, but then Kreuter found
that they could relate better to the example of puns in
rap lyrics, especially since Robinson is an aspiring wordsmith.
C.O.C.O.A. House’s mission is to promote education and to
encourage kids to stay in school by empowering them with
self- confidence, social skills and the good study habits
necessary to graduate. The program was launched in 1996
in the basement of the Grace Temple Church of God in Christ,
where founder and executive director Rachel Graham’s father
is a pastor. While only a sophomore at Union College, Graham
and two college friends began mentoring neighborhood kids
once a week at her father’s church. By the end of the school
year, C.O.C.O.A. House became an official campus club, complete
with funding from Union’s student-activities budget. After
Graham graduated, her program was endorsed by Schenectady
Inner City Ministry (SICM), and granted nonprofit status.
Originally, the program was designed as a “coffeehouse”
for kids that focused specifically on academics. After living
in the Coffeehouse, a theme house at Union, Graham wanted
to invoke the same intellectual and artsy feel, but focused
on children. And instead of coffee—“because coffee and kids
should never mix,” jokes Graham—hot cocoa is always on the
menu (hence the name).
To distinguish the C.O.C.O.A. House from other area youth
programs, Graham stresses that while “many of the other
after-school programs provide recreational activities, which
is fine, I thought, given the situation, we should focus
on education. That’s where we stand out, by addressing an
The C.O.C.O.A. House also conducts a variety of special
events, including field trips, workshops and Union College
sporting events; the students also participate in writing
pen pals, producing plays, and collecting money for charity.
The program’s growing popularity at Grace Temple Church
eventually forced Graham to seek an alternative home to
accommodate the demand. The church purchased the building
next door at 869 Stanley St.; renovations were funded mostly
by private donors, Union College and the GE Elfun Society.
The history of 869 Stanley St. is one of cyclical change
and ironic rebirth. The variegated Dutch colonial with stained-glass
windows stands apart from its homogenous white neighbors,
some with boarded-up windows. Situated proudly on the corner
of Stanley and Steuben streets, the building is “an ornate
box assembled by very caring hands in which the jewel that
is the C.O.C.O.A. House is kept,” as described by Frederic
Lee, president of the C.O.C.O.A. House board of advisors
and a Hamilton Hill resident.
According to Al Jurczynski, Schenectady’s mayor and a native
of Hamilton Hill, 869 Stanley once belonged to a former
mayor. During the intervening years, the house has gone
through many different owners and degrees of upkeep; the
most recent tenant, he says, was a gang leader and drug
dealer who was murdered last year.
Thanks to Graham, Jurczynski says, the building has finally
come “full circle.” In his speech at the C.O.C.O.A. House
grand-opening ceremony on Jan. 11, Jurczynski proudly declared,
“It’s times like these when it’s actually fun to be mayor
learning environment: children and tutors at C.O.C.O.A.
House.. Photo by Ellen Descisciolo
new and improved C.O.C.O.A. House consists of color-coordinated
rooms designated for different areas of study. Past the
front desk in the foyer, the large living room, or Pink
Room, is allocated both for group study and for fun activities
such as board games. There is a kitchen for snacks and refreshments,
and the back porch has potential for a greenhouse. Upstairs,
the Blue Room, which has two computers, is for math and
science; adding a creative touch, Union alum and onetime
tutor Anna Hurst decorated the ceiling with glow-in-the-dark
stars in the form of constellations. The Orange Room is
mainly for social studies and history, while the Purple
Room is for language and reading.
Although she grew up in suburban Guilderland, Graham—“Lady
Cocoa” to friends and family—spent a significant amount
of time in Hamilton Hill visiting with her family and attending
her father’s church. What Graham witnessed on the Hill—a
community plagued by gangs, frequent shootings, an open-air
drug market and a high dropout rate—motivated her to do
something to help her friends, family and, by extension,
lot of my friends were part of the church,” explains Graham.
“Quite a few of them became teenage mothers.”
She wanted to reach out to the next generation of students
by educating them with options. “I wanted to provide positive
images for kids in negative situations who don’t normally
see an alternative lifestyle,” she says.
Graham insists that cleaning up the Hill is not “us against
them,” pointing out that “even the drug dealers think it’s
a good idea.” She explains that the kids see this dangerous
activity not only on the street but also in their homes.
“Many of the young men who don’t finish school end up on
the corner making fast cash. They can be the older brothers
or uncles of some of the kids in the program. There is no
Graham, who was honored with a 1998 Human Rights Youth Achievement
Award from Schenectady County Human Rights Commission for
her efforts, graduated from Union College that same year
with a geology degree. Before the inception of the C.O.C.O.A.
House, Graham considered environmental work or trying to
create a name for herself as an artist. “I would call myself
an artist, more so than a scientist,” claims Graham, who
minored in visual arts. For now, however, Graham is more
than content donating her creative juices to the program
and the house: “I want to see my family through school and
open their perspective by offering them choices.”
Fourteen-year-old Mekkah Bergeron has been involved with
the program since day one. She met Graham through the religious
camp Summer Bless, where Graham served as a camp counselor
and encouraged Mekkah to attend her father’s church. From
there, a relationship of mutual respect was born. Bergeron
began asking Rachel for help with her homework, which provided
Graham with a guinea pig for her unique program that would
become known as the C.O.C.O.A. House.
Bergeron, who grew up next door to 869 Stanley St., is thankful
to Graham, who “inspired me to be somebody.”
Teachers at Schenectady High School never showed any faith
in Bergeron, and continually berated her: “They told me
I could never be anyone when I grew up,” she says. One teacher
predicted that she wouldn’t pass a test. She credits the
C.O.C.O.A. House for helping her earn a B—and that teacher’s
Now Bergeron has her sights set on attending Yale or Harvard
and becoming a lawyer. She’s also considering a career working
with kids, which could lead to “taking over Rachel’s job.”
Students in Graham’s program are encouraged to continue
on to higher education—and the inspiration can be contagious.
wish they had a program like this when I was in school,”
says office manager Tammy Nobles, whose three children participated
in the program. “It has motivated me to go back to school.”
Nobles completed her home-study GED program and, thanks
to an Americorps Educational Grant award, she can afford
to take classes at Schenectady County Community College,
where her daughter is currently enrolled as a student.
At the Jan. 11 ceremony, both current and former C.O.C.O.A.
House tutors from Union were on hand, a reminder of the
program’s roots as a college club. State Assemblyman James
Tedisco, another Union alumnus, applauded the community
involvement of students. Invitations for the ceremony were
sent out to anyone who has a hand in the program, from its
conception to the recent renovations. Dawn Parisi, a member
of the advisory board and a Union alum and employee, said
they even mailed an invitation to a former Union tutor now
living in Korea. “C.O.C.O.A. House is a contin-uation,”Parisi
says. “We want them to know they can always come back and
The C.O.C.O.A. House connection with Union College is one
of symbiosis where two opposite worlds collide and eventually
learn from each other. “Being a student at Union, there
is a bubble on campus,” suggests Graham, trying to explain
the phenomenon of students who are scared to leave the shelter
and security of the pastoral campus grounds. “It [C.O.C.O.A.
House] exposes the students to other lifestyles, and opens
Students who may at first be hesitant to venture up to the
Hill often learn to appreciate and look forward to their
interactions with the vastly different world a mere mile
from Union College and the privileged backgrounds a majority
of its students share.
Each year at the annual C.O.C.O.A. House banquet, tutors
give testimonials of their experiences; a handful of Union
tutors credit their time with the children as their reason
for deciding to pursue teaching careers or enter the field
of child psychology. According to Graham, one girl gave
a teary speech that praised the program for making her feel
at home in Schenectady because she missed her family so
Through Rachel Graham’s vision, Hamilton Hill residents
and Union students have forged a common bond. Lee Denson,
a volunteer coordinator for the C.O.C.O.A. House, praises
the Union tutors for inspiring her: “They surprised me.
They must really want to do this if they are willing to
come to a bullet- ridden neighborhood. That’s saying something.
I’m dedicated to this, and so are they.”
In the words of Hamilton Hill resident Frederic Lee, spoken
at the grand-opening ceremony, the C.O.C.O.A. House represents
the “equal access to the power of learning that Martin Luther
King Jr. and our forefathers had in mind.
their noses pressed against the glass window of higher education
without a key for entry, the C.O.C.O.A. House is a process
to cut those keys.”