By Carina Sorrentino
Children of Our Community Open to Achievement, better known as C.O.C.O.A. House, exists as one of Union’s most beneficial interactions with the Schenectady community.
Founded in 1996 by Union student Rachel Graham, C.O.C.O.A. has provided a tremendous service to the children of Clifton Park since its inception.
What began as an operation in one room in a church now occupies an entire house in Clifton Park where children can come after school twice a week to be tutored by Union volunteers.
The facility is currently run by Rachel Graham’s mother, the legendary “Ms. Graham,” as the children know her.
Graham, along with many other volunteers, keeps C.O.C.O.A. House operational during the school year. The house achieved official club status at Union and is maintained by a group of passionate students.
Graham and her volunteers visit schools in the area to find students who may benefit from the extra help in school. They even go door to door in the Clifton Park area asking parents if their
C.O.C.O.A. House currently has eight to 10 children who come regularly. The children range from third grade through sixth grade.
They are able to work on math problems, reading, writing and games when they finish practicing academics.
Current President of C.O.C.O.A. House Laura Somberg ’16 commented on the evolution of her involvement with the club, stating, “I had a conversation with the former student body president about his preparations for Teach For America, something I was interested in pursuing.”
She continued, “I asked what activities on campus he had done to prepare for the job, and he told me about C.O.C.O.A.
“I looked into it and started going, and immediately fell in love with the kids, as I think a lot of students would,” Somberg concluded.
Somberg and C.O.C.O.A. House’s faculty advisor Professor Jeffrey Witsoe would like to see the program increase the number of days that Union students can go and tutor at the house, thus sizeable increasing their impact as a whole.
The program is offered at no cost to the children, who are able to come and receive the extra help they need on the subjects in which they struggle.
To the dismay of children and C.O.C.O.A.’s volunteers, the program is no longer able to afford to hire people to write grants. The grants are used to pay for the house’s operations. Because insurance has been quadrupled, it is now up to fundraising efforts to keep the program going.
Fortunately, there has been an increased interest from Union students. Six to eight tutors are typically able to go to the house per excursion, on average.
However, more organizations have noticed the importance of C.O.C.O.A. During Greek Week, tabling outside of Reamer has prompted students to donate to their “favorite” Greek organization, with all of the proceeds funding C.O.C.O.A. House.
“It’s really a community effort,” commented Somberg. “I think this term there has been a lot more involvement, and I feel it is primarily because of last year when we had our end-of-the-year banquet.
“The kids talked about their experiences, going from getting D’s to A’s, and going from being behind in classes to on par, if not ahead. Seeing them doing their homework and also having fun is extremely rewarding,” she continued
The energy in the house is proof of the difference it makes, as children light up when they see volunteers and get to meet new people. The benefits for the child as well as the tutor are invaluable.
The goals of C.O.C.O.A. House are for volunteers and children to build strong relationships, be positive role models and do school work.
Somberg added that primarily a goal is to keep the children off the streets.
When the children are able to interact with the students at Union, they see what kind of potential their futures hold.
Not only does C.O.C.O.A. House provide a positive service, it brings Union students in contact with children who may come from very different backgrounds than themselves.
While the children are learning how to perform better in school, Union volunteers learn how to step outside of their comfort zones and make a sizeable impact on the lives of children with great potential.