Students run COCOA House, a community outreach program

Children+from+Schenectady+playing+at+COCOA+House.+Photo+by+Hannah+Josovitz.
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Students run COCOA House, a community outreach program

Children from Schenectady playing at COCOA House. Photo by Hannah Josovitz.

Children from Schenectady playing at COCOA House. Photo by Hannah Josovitz.

Children from Schenectady playing at COCOA House. Photo by Hannah Josovitz.

Children from Schenectady playing at COCOA House. Photo by Hannah Josovitz.

Hannah Josovitz and Nicolas Potenza

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Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, youth from Schenectady spend their afternoon with Union College students at COCOA House.
COCOA House is an academic after school program located a mile away from Union College in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood. COCOA House was founded by Union graduate Rachel Graham ’99 during her sophomore year.

After seeing a need for educational programs in the community, Graham set out to create a program that promoted education and mentorship. She accomplished this by pairing youth with Union student volunteers. 22 years later, the program continues to thrive and serve youth in Schenectady.

Today, members of Union’s student body and members of the Schenectady community work together to run the COCOA House program. There are over 80 students who are trained COCOA House volunteers. In addition, COCOA House is staffed by a community activist, Founder of Save Our Streets Inc. and Executive Director Will Rivas. Along with Rivas, COCOA House has a student Executive Board (E-Board) that oversees its programs, sites and finances. On the college campus, there is a COCOA House Club that works closely with the organization.

In the words of a past volunteer, “working at COCOA House has brought me closer to a community alienated by Union College.
Interacting with students from totally different backgrounds has been an invaluable learning opportunity that challenges me to step outside my comfort zone.” They believe that attending COCOA House gives Union College students a chance to gain a better understanding of Schenectady.

This idea is expressed by COCOA House Club E-Board Member, Eeshan Kumar ’21: “It’s a wonderful experience: every week, I get to tutor and mentor the kids in the Schenectady area. Interacting with and spending time with them, I receive so much joy and pleasure.”

According to Kumar, students who volunteer at COCOA House feel connected to the community through the strong relationships they build with their mentees. This connection with the community allows Union College students to fear Schenectady less and advocate for the community more.

The E-Board believes that COCOA House’s location in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood exposes Union students to the places they fear.

It is hoped that after spending time with the participants of the programs, their families and Rivas, students will make fewer negative assumptions about Schenectady and Hamilton Hill. According to the E-Board, the success of COCOA House directly correlates with the passions of student volunteers and staff members. The relationships that Union College students are building with youth in the community are shaping the way that students interact with Schenectady. The E-Board hopes that this relationship will lead to a strong relationship between the college and its surrounding community, while provided much needed services to youth in Schenectady.