Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Columns & Opinions
   The Simple Life
 News & Features
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   Picture This
   The Movie Schedule
   Listen Here
   Clubs & Concerts
   Art Murmur
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad
Opening doors: C.O.C.O.A. House founder Rachel Graham. Photo by Ellen Descisciolo

Light on the Hill
By Tanya Lee

Union 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

"Hey guys, do you know what a pun is?”

Chuck 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 academic need.”

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 of Schenectady.”

A learning environment: children and tutors at C.O.C.O.A. House.. Photo by Ellen Descisciolo

The 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, strangers.

“A 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 detachment.”

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 respect.

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.

“I 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 be welcomed.”

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 their eyes.”

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 much.

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.

“With 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.”

Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home Dogs
promo 120x60
120x60 Up to 25% off
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 4 Central Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.