COCOA House helped William Rivas graduate from Schenectady High School after he was kicked out for fighting.
The after-school program arranged for Rivas to take his final exams at its Hamilton Hill headquarters. It was a convenient set-up, as Rivas and his family lived right next door.
"That's my bedroom," Rivas told me, pointing to a window on the second floor of the two-story house. He chuckled.
"I used to sneak out on the roof," Rivas said.
Those days are long gone.
Now 37, Rivas is no longer a troubled teenager involved in drugs and gangs.
He's a dedicated advocate for Schenectady's youth, an ebullient and enthusiastic grassroots community leader best known for founding the non-profit organization Save Our Streets.
Talking to Rivas, it's impossible not to get swept up in his dream to make Schenectady a better, safer and more enriching place for low-income children and teens. On the first of July, he assumed another role: executive director of COCOA House.
The job marks something of a homecoming for Rivas.
He lived next door to COCOA House until he was 22, when his family moved away as a result of what he calls his "bad decisions."
"I made a lot of bad decisions," Rivas recalled. "My bad decisions put my family and friends in jeopardy."
Today, Rivas' childhood home sits empty -- one of many darkened, vacant properties on Hamilton Hill.
What makes it different from those other houses is the fact that COCOA House owns it.
Rivas' eyes sparkle as he discusses his plans for bringing the vacant property back to life. Those plans aren't finalized, but Rivas hopes to see his childhood become a vital part of the neighborhood, and for COCOA House to become bigger and better than ever before.
It's an exciting project, and sorely needed, because there are fewer programs for youth on Hamilton Hill.
One big loss was the closure of Carver Community Center in 2013, which left a significant void in the community. A local group, Miracle on Craig Street, hopes to re-open the building and provide programming there. But that hasn't happened yet, and the once-active facility remains shuttered.
"Physical locations are a key element to community services," Rivas said. "You need something almost 24-7 -- safe, positive places for kids to go. We need to be better as a community at providing for kids."
"When I was a kid, we went from Carver to the Boys & Girls Club to Quest," Rivas continued. "The more services you have, the more opportunities you have."
Quest is still active, but in a building on State Street. The Boys & Girls Club remains a neighborhood presence, offering programs for youth at a nearby elementary school. But the organization's longtime home on Craig Street is being transformed into a hub for artists and entrepreneurs.
Founded 20 years ago by a Union College student, COCOA (Children of Our Community Open to Achievement) House provides after-school tutoring at the corner of Stanley Street.
The organization is operated and staffed by volunteers from Union College, and in recent years the organization has struggled to keep its doors open, due to a lack of funds.
The hope is that Rivas can revitalize COCOA House, Jeff Witsoe, the Union College professor who serves as president of COCOA House's board of directors, told me.
"We've been in survival mode," Witsoe said, adding, "COCOA House has a great deal of potential. That's where Will comes in. .... He does have this energy."
After spending time with Rivas, I know exactly what Witsoe means when he refers to Rivas' energy.
And if anybody has the energy to reinvigorate an ailing non-profit, it's probably Rivas.
Rivas told me that he wants to maintain COCOA House's ties to Union College students, and expand its offerings.
In addition to tutoring and mentoring, he wants to offer arts and music programs, as well as financial-wellness classes that will teach young people how to budget and start their own businesses. And he wants to increase the COCOA House's hours of operation.
"[COCOA House] doesn't run programs in the summer," he noted. "But it will."
Witsoe told me that the decline of youth programs on Hamilton Hill made keeping COCOA House open a priority.
"We've seen the revitalization of downtown, and yet very important organizations in Hamilton Hill have been closing," he said. "So there's this disparity."
Rivas credits his wife with helping him turn his life around.
"She challenged me," said Rivas, who did four stints in jail, one of which lasted about eight months. "She said, 'You have the opportunity to help people, but you're throwing your life away.'"
The last time he was arrested, "I felt a sense of relief," Rivas recalled. "I said, 'No more gangs, no more drugs.'"
Rivas is a natural leader, but in his earlier years that leadership manifested itself in negative ways.
"Kids who watched me in church also watched me on the streets," Rivas said. "They saw me selling drugs, being in gangs."
Now he's older and wiser, and determined to lift up a community where he's still well-known. During our chat, a man walking a dog spotted Rivas and exclaimed, "Will! Christ, you look different."
Frankly, it's inspiring to listen to Rivas talk about his desire to do good in a community where he once did bad. He's the type of leader Schenectady needs, someone who can get stuff done and motivate people to do likewise, and the city will benefit from his efforts.
Rivas told me that his background gives him a better sense of what today's youth are going through, and why they might make the same bad decisions he did.
"It helps me understand how to get people out," Rivas said, adding, "I can say, 'Listen this is not a road you want to go down.' Nobody ever really takes the time to tell them that they can have something else."
"I want to help rebuild a community I helped destroy."
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]