Christian Sbragia was just 9 years old when he noticed a dire need in his East Palo Alto neighborhood: there weren't safe places for kids 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 over 600 kids in his city since its inception, all free of charge. Staff teach children foundational leadership skills like empathy, creativity, problem-solving and collaboration through play and the arts.
"At the time, I opened my backyard and did little events and parties out of my backyard; it is one of the safer areas of the neighborhood," he said. He noted he doesn't come from a wealthy background, but he's been able to host programs free of charge through sponsorships from restaurants, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, San Mateo County and others. "I had seen a lot of the kids in the community roaming around the streets," Sbragia said.
"We still struggle with that today," he said, referring to the recent violence in Jack Farrell Park. One person died and three were injured in a shooting, which took place while families and children were playing nearby on May 17. "After school and on weekends, there are not a lot of places for children to go in the community; our parks aren't always safe."
Sbragia, who is also the school programs assistant and after school support aide at The Primary School in East Palo Alto, is proud that his organization connected kids struggling with isolation during remote learning.
At the start of 2020, he 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 in online Zoom hangouts. He offers CoolineKids after-school programs at elementary schools in the area and summer camps. High school interns learn how to create curricula for his programs and are trained in communication skills.
It was clear to him how an elementary school student named Cynthia grew through Cooline during distance learning.
"She learned to connect during a time when she didn't have a lot of connection," he said. "At the beginning, she didn't want to talk at all and kept her camera off."
By March 2021, Cynthia was able to thoughtfully participate in a discussion about racism with local author and EPAA Vice Principal Joanna Ho.
"It was beautiful to see how she went from being shy and uncomfortable to being a really confident communicator," he said.
Sbragia is also proud of himself for thriving during remote learning.
"I was really worried COVID was going to throw me off of my track of going to college and it didn't," he said. "I used distance learning to take up personal development opportunities. I took different classes to learn more about nonprofits and leadership to help me grow."
He has been active not only in his nonprofit during high school, but he also serves as education chair on the San Mateo County Youth Commission. He was a lead intern at a neuro-diverse school and worked on training for police to better respond to those experiencing mental health crises.
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'm feeling excited, a little nervous, or a lot bit nervous," he said about graduating.
More information on Cooline is available at ctepayouth.org.
Find the rest of our graduation coverage in "Celebrating the class of 2022: A roundup of stories, graduate lists, photos"