Strengthening communities: Youth-led Cooline Organization grows during pandemic

Strengthening Communities: Youth-led Cooline Organization grows during pandemic

In 2014, when Christian Sbragia was in fourth grade, the East Palo Alto resident thought the kids in his community needed better options for fun and safe activities.

“Instead of having kids roaming around the streets, I thought, let’s put together this group and host events and create a safe place to have fun,” said Sbragia, who today is the executive director of the Cooline Organization (formerly known as Cooline Team of East Palo Alto).

During the first few years, he hosted gatherings out of his backyard, apartment complex and in his house. “It was really just a few neighborhood kids that I knew, and they brought their cousins and their friends, and it expanded to more people in the neighborhood.”

Sbragia grew the organization without adult involvement, though his mother supervised gatherings early on and has been “a huge support,” he said.

In the summer of 2019, Sbragia researched 501(c)(3) requirements and completed the process, filling out paperwork and forming a board of community members who had supported the group’s work. Creating this more formal structure laid the foundation for the group to grow – and for it later to receive a $5,000 grant from SVCF’s Neighborhoods Community Action Grants program in 2022.

“They are a very new, emerging organization,” said Mauricio Palma, director of community-building for Silicon Valley Community Foundation. He praised the Cooline Organization for being a “phenomenal model” of a youth-driven organization.

Cooline kids having fun

Meeting a need during the pandemic

Before COVID-19, Cooline Organization’s events were small: The first community event they held attracted four people. As the team was trying to build support for events that combined a service project – such as putting together hygiene kits — and fun, the group struggled to gain momentum. They shifted their focus to teaching elementary school students about building healthy friendships using games, activities, videos and art projects.

When the pandemic started shutting down in-person events, the Cooline Organization had to pivot.

“Over the summer of 2020, we came up with this idea to launch a summer camp kit, like a summer camp-in-a-box,” Sbragia said. "We created boxes with activities like friendship bracelets, books, resources about COVID-19, snacks -- anything we could think of at that point that families might need. We delivered the kits to 60 East Palo Alto homes."

“In January 2020, we had 15 people engaged in our programming,” Sbragia said. “By the end of 2020, we had served over 500 people. We grew tremendously over that time.”

After the “summer camp-in-a-box,” they created a multi-day online summer camp, with the help of StreetCode Academy, a fellow SVCF grantee, that included Zoom visits from the Peninsula Humane Society and a magician.

“It was so fun,” Sbragia said. “Most of the summer camps that people had been prepared to go to weren’t panning out during the pandemic. The idea was to bring light and fun to families during that time.”

They continued hosting monthly online camps — with presentations from community leaders and educators as well as games and activities — until May 2021, when students returned to school in person. Guest speakers talked about local issues such as Safe Routes to School (SRTS) San Mateo County, a countywide program that encourages children to walk and bike to school, resulting in less traffic congestion and emissions.

“Given what happened during the pandemic and the isolation that kids in this particular age group have had, the programs and events the Cooline Organization offered is just remarkable,” Palma said.

Focus on fun summers

The online camps paved the way for the group’s first in-person summer camp in 2021— a half-day camp for about a dozen kids.

“We wanted to try it out and see how it would work,” Sbragia said.

It was successful enough that the group is moving forward with a focus on summer programming – which will allow Sbragia to keep the organization going while he attends college. He is graduating from East Palo Alto Academy this year and will attend CSU East Bay to study ethnic studies and child development beginning next fall.

This year’s summer camp will be held at an elementary school in East Palo Alto in late June. The full-day, weeklong camp will offer programming to two groups: 60 elementary school students who will attend the camp, and more than 35 high school students who will serve as staff members.

The high school students will attend Crew Camp for training, where they will participate in games and activities for the kids plus more specific training. The following week will be the camp for rising first through fifth graders. This year’s camp will have “a lot more kids and a lot more time,” than last year’s, Sbragia said.

Cooline kids doing a science experiment

Strengthening community ties

“Giving grants to groups such as the Cooline Organization is part of SVCF’s community-building work," said Palma. "We want to support organizations that focus on building trust and relationships among community members, and that are working to increase equity and improve the neighborhood they’re part of."

For Sbragia, the grant is a vote of confidence and a means of expanding the group’s programming.

“I’ve been following the work of SVCF for so long – I would say since I was a freshman in high school,” Sbragia said. “I had always wanted to apply, but we weren’t a 501(c)(3) at the time – we weren’t ready for a grant. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. We have been working so hard over many years to be able to get to this point.”