The last time I visited the COCOA House, it was quiet and still.
There were no children in the reading room upstairs, combing through books, or seated at tables downstairs, writing in journals. There were no children doing math problems, or drawing or playing board games.
That was in the dead of summer.
When I swung by the COCOA House last week, it thrummed with activity — with the sounds of children learning, playing and laughing.
For an organization described to me as being in "survival mode" just a few months ago, the longtime after-school program is very much alive.
Located on Stanley Street in Schenectady's Hamilton Hill neighborhood, the COCOA House has a new leader, youth advocate William Rivas, and a renewed sense of purpose.
In the past, the organization's focus was tutoring, and while tutoring underserved youth is still a big part of the COCOA House's mission, the emphasis has shifted.
Rivas has encouraged the COCOA House volunteers to see themselves as mentors — trusted, caring adults who support youth in all aspects of their lives, not just school.
"A mentor is someone who engages you daily," Rivas explained. "A tutor is someone who shows up and helps you with your homework. ... A tutor is temporary. You have a mentor for life."
"Kids need to know that when they come to the COCOA House we're not going to judge them just on their academics," Rivas continued. "We're going to ask 'How are you doing? How was your day?'"
Rivas is right to see mentors as a vital tool for helping Schenectady's youth succeed in life.
The research suggests that mentors can have a positive impact on children and teens, keeping them focused on school and out of trouble.
Last spring I attended a day-long youth summit where Schenectady High School students shared their ideas for improving the community; Many of the teens spoke of the need for mentors to help them navigate the sometimes-rocky waters of adolescence. The Schenectady Foundation, which organized the summit, has invested millions in youth programs in recent years, with a particular focus on increasing the number of mentors in the community.
The COCOA (Children of Our Community Open to Achievement) House is well-positioned to help fulfill this need.
Most of its volunteers are Union College students; the organization's site supervisor, Hannah Josovitz, is a senior from Bethesda, Maryland, who has been volunteering at the COCOA House for over a year.
Josovitz was overseeing the program when I arrived, chatting with kids and gently guiding them into different activities.
The overall vibe was loose, but the day was tightly structured and scheduled, with kids transitioning from activity to activity — from homework to journal writing to reading aloud, for example. One of the best things about the COCOA House is its homey atmosphere — it felt more like summer camp than school, and the kids appeared to be having a great time.
"The kids have been sitting and learning in class all day," Josovitz explained. "So we might as well make it fun for them while we're here."
"It's different from school," a nine-year-old boy named Elon told me. "We get to play games after we're done with our homework."
Under Rivas, the COCOA House has expanded its programming.
It now serves children between the ages of 6 and 18; last year, it served third- through sixth-graders. The younger children come in the earlier part of the afternoon, and the teenagers arrive later. Between 5 and 6 p.m., dinner is served, and Rivas told me that "specialty classes," such as a chess club and art classes, are also planned.
The COCOA House has been providing Schenectady's youth with a safe and enriching after-school environment for the past 20 years, and the program's rebirth is a joy to see.
A new generation of students will benefit from its services, and that's a very good thing indeed.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]