Alisha Zhao proves that you can make a difference no matter what your age is.
High school student and founder of the Kids First Project Alisha Zhao is wise beyond her years. After asking her some questions about her movement and hearing her insights on running her organization, I couldn’t help but feel extremely inspired!
The work you do with the Kids First Project is absolutely amazing! Tell us a little bit about the issues you tackle and your mission.
Alisha Zhao: As a community-based organization, we focus on youth homelessness and work towards reversing the many effects poverty has on child development. Our mission is to promote HOPE—Health, Opportunity, Play, Education—by raising awareness on the lack of funding going towards disadvantaged children, providing the resources necessary for children experiencing homelessness to reach their full potential, freeing up time for parents to get training on job skills, and ultimately breaking the generational cycle of poverty.
What inspired you to create this movement? Why is this mission so important?
AZ: I have always had a passion for community service and activism, but the inspiration behind Kids First came at fourteen years old when I began volunteering at my local family homeless shelter. I met so many children, from merely a few months old to youth older than me, who were capable of becoming a doctor, scientist, dancer, or even president, yet simply did not have the resources necessary to reach their full potential.
The mission of Kids First Project is important, because what happens when we are children is truly what defines us for the rest of our lives; it is crucial to have access to educational and recreational programs to foster passion and empowerment. With the many stigmas that come with homelessness, it is important to raise awareness about the issue of poverty right here in our community. The average age of a person experiencing homelessness in America is just nine years old, and homelessness is only growing. With Kids First, we hope to continue empowering youth experiencing homelessness while raising awareness across states to spread our mission.
Tell us about one particular story that has touched you while doing this work.
AZ: I actually met one of my best friends who was staying in shelter two years ago. I did not know this at the time, but her family owned a food cart at the corner of a street in downtown Portland. If you are not familiar with Portland, food carts is a huge part of our culture, and they play a huge role within our community. Everything was going well until their family faced challenges within their business and found themselves without a home.
While in the shelter, she took care of her younger brother and spent time helping my club serve dinner and carry out activities. Her generosity and endless kindness while overcoming adversities herself has been an important inspiration to me and the work I do, motivating me to continue providing opportunities to the many youth facing the same situation.
What have you learned from your organization?
AZ: An extremely important lesson that I have learned throughout my work is that life is not linear. When I initially started my work in the community, I didn’t think much about the many obstacles that would come up. At first, I treated every obstacle like it was something that had to be negative. However, as time went on, I began to realize that obstacles are inevitable, and it’s important to look at each one as a way to learn and grow.
By facing obstacles like a new lesson, we are able to come out of it stronger and more experienced. For those of you who are about to launch your own social movement, or simply pursuing a passion, always remember to treat it as a learning experience where mistakes happen. Rather than a linear line, life comes with many curves and plateaus, and overcoming them with a positive attitude is what leads to success.
What challenges have you faced while developing your organization?
AZ: Throughout the creation of Kids First Project, I came across adults who told me over and over again that my ideas were a little too ambitious and that I was being unrealistic with the real impact I would be able to create.
Although negative feedback was frustrating, I accepted constructive criticism, but ensured that I would not let the comments deter me from achieving my goal of creating Kids First. I also struggled with developing a team and delegating tasks. Initially, I felt as if the Board of Directors should be composed of people who have already had some kind of experience. However, if the team had in fact been constructed with that mindset, we would have missed out on a lot of great, passionate team members.
Throughout the development of an initiative or organization, remember to keep an open mind, as many initial thoughts and ideas will inevitably shift. In terms of creating a team, passion will always shine through, and those who are passionate about what they do will always make the ideal team members. Once a team is created, delegating tasks will come naturally, as every individual will take on specific areas of a task at hand.
How do you learn to balance your organization with your academic career?
AZ: It’s okay to step back or ask for help when you find things becoming overwhelming. We are all human, and it’s completely normal to need a break once in awhile. Do not be afraid to ask for a little extra help from a teammate or teacher! Always remember to make time for yourself, and focus on what you love to do that doesn’t involve being “productive”, whether that is a Saturday morning hike with your family, a run around the neighborhood, or a movie night with your friends.
How can others help your cause or get involved?
AZ: People of all ages can help out in a variety of ways. On a small scale, students can assist in creating curriculums that can be implemented at our program nights, like an art class or game. They can also hold fundraisers for us to help us continue our work.
On a larger scale, students are able to create chapters of Kids First Project, whether it be a Hope For Homeless Club or Kids First Project model in their schools or community. Also, as always, donations always help in the sustainability of Kids First. For more information on how to donate and get more involved, visit our website.