Christian Sbragia was only 9 years old when he noticed a dire need in his East Palo Alto neighborhood: there were no safe places for children to play outside of school.
Sbragia, 18, who graduated from East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA) on June 3, said his nonprofit, The Cooline Organization, has served more than 600 children in his town since its inception, all for free . Staff teach children fundamental leadership skills such as empathy, creativity, problem solving and collaboration through play and the arts.
“Back then, I opened my garden and had small events and parties in my garden; it’s one of the safest areas in the neighborhood,” he said. He noted that he did not come from a wealthy background, but was able to organize programs for free through sponsorships from restaurants, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, San Mateo County and others. “I had seen a lot of children from the community wandering the streets,” Sbragia said.
“We still struggle with that today,” he said, referring to the recent violence at Jack Farrell Park. One person died and three were injured in a shooting, which took place as families and children played nearby on May 17. it’s not always safe.”
Sbragia, who is also a school curriculum assistant and after-school support worker at East Palo Alto Elementary School, is proud that her organization has connected children struggling with isolation during remote learning.
At the start of 2020 it was serving about 15 students, but by the end of the year over 500 had either received a kit (i.e. summer camp activities in a box) or participated to online Zoom hangouts. It offers CoolineKids after-school programs in area elementary schools and summer camps. High school interns learn to create programs for its programs and are trained in communication skills.
It was clear to him how an elementary student named Cynthia grew up thanks to Cooline during remote learning.
“She learned to connect at a time when she didn’t have much of a connection,” he said. “At first she didn’t want to talk at all and kept her camera off.”
In March 2021, Cynthia was able to thoughtfully participate in a discussion on racism with local author and EPAA Vice Principal Joanna Ho.
“It was beautiful to see how she went from being shy and awkward to being a really confident communicator,” he said.
Sbragia is also proud of himself for thriving during distance learning.
“I was really worried that COVID would throw me off my course of going to college and it’s not,” he said. “I used distance learning to pursue personal development opportunities. I took different courses to learn more about nonprofits and leadership to help me grow.”
He was not only active in his nonprofit while in high school, but he is also the education chair for the San Mateo County Youth Commission. He was a senior trainee at a neuro-diverse school and worked on training police officers to better respond to people in mental health crisis.
Now Sbragia plans to attend California State University, East Bay this fall. He will study ethnic studies and child development and live in the dorms.
“I feel excited, a little nervous, or really nervous,” he said of graduating.
More information about Cooline is available at ctepayyouth.org.