Kids First Project
Name: Alisha Zhao
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
School: Stanford University
CH: What does your organization do?
AZ: Kids First Project is a nonprofit organization that brings educational and recreational programs to youth experiencing homelessness across the US. Our mission is to provide the programs and resources necessary for youth experiencing homelessness to reach their full potential.
CH: What inspired you to create this organization?
AZ: I started volunteering at my local family homeless shelter when I was 14. That’s where I met Sarah. We were the same age and both had brothers and a shared love for lacrosse, and we instantly became friends. Over time I noticed that, while I spent 30 minutes at most getting to school, Sarah’s daily commutes totaled 3 hours. I had lacrosse practice, but Sarah had to quit her team. With what free time she had, she would look after her brothers and the younger kids in the shelter. All the kids had dreams of becoming doctors, scientists, dancers, and even presidents but didn’t have the resources necessary to pursue their dreams. Sarah’s resilience in making the most of her situation inspired me, and I was inspired to find a way to bring programs directly to her and other youth experiencing homelessness.
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CH: How do you balance life as a college student and nonprofit owner?
AZ: I’m still trying to navigate that balance. Because Kids First Project focuses heavily on direct services, my biggest challenge is being so far away from my team and most of our programs. Most of my time spent working on Kids First is now spent online through calls, Google docs, and emails, which is difficult because I value the in-person component of our work. I addressed this challenge by joining Stanford Housing Justice—even though it’s not through Kids First, it’s helped me stay connected with the communities we serve.
In terms of time management, I think I’ve finally started to embrace that it’s OK to step back or ask for help when I’m feeling overwhelmed; it’s important to make time for yourself! Between Kids First Project, classes, and other commitments, I always make Saturday morning Dish hikes with friends and reading a priority.
CH: How has your organization impacted your own life?
AZ: I’ve learned so much from my team and the kids that we serve, from how to create a lemon clock to how to truly be there for somebody else. When I first created Kids First, I made a bracelet for myself with the word “purpose” engraved into it to serve as a reminder that my work will always be driven by and for the kids in shelter. That hasn’t changed over the past 3 years. But whether it’s through public interest law or something else, Kids First has also helped me realize that I want to fully commit myself to human rights beyond college.
CH: What do you hope to achieve with your organization in the future?
AZ: The goal is for our work to no longer be needed! However, in the near future, I am hoping to find more ways for Kids First Project to increase access for youth experiencing homelessness to programs and resources. This summer, I’ve been interning at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which has increased my interest in the law and policy side of youth homelessness. I’m currently brainstorming with my team on how to incorporate an advocacy component to our work. While states are required to ensure that youth experiencing homelessness have access to extracurricular activities and programs, there are many barriers to implementation, including a lack of awareness.
CH: How can other students get involved in your organization?
AZ: We’re looking to fill some open positions on our Board of Directors! This will give students real-world experience in running a nonprofit as well as deep engagement with the issue of homelessness and our work. We also recruit Volunteer Leaders to help spread awareness about our organization in communities and lead our program nights. Lastly, students can create their own Kids First Project chapters at their high school or college campus. We send chapter tool kits to help our chapter leaders set up and manage their organization. Interested students can reach out to us at [email protected].