Kids First Project Empowers Youth Experiencing Homelessness Through Innovative Mentorship Programs

When Alisha Zhao started volunteering as a teen at a local family homeless shelter, she learned of an alarming statistic surrounding youth homelessness.

“I was really shocked to learn from the volunteer director the average age of a person experiencing homelessness in the U.S. is 9 years old. That statistic came to life when I actually started volunteering. I was shocked to see so many kids in the shelter, but also a range of ages; from toddlers to college-age young people. It was all across the board,” said 20-year-old Zhao, an undergraduate student at Stanford University. 

During her time volunteering at the shelter, she met Norena, a girl who was a year younger than her whom she identified similarly with in terms of interests and passions. Zhao quickly became friends with the teen and came to know and connect with her on a deeper level.

“As I got to know her, I learned all the obstacles she faced such as hour-long commutes because she had to go to a school across the river, she had to look after her brother, and she didn’t have time to do homework in the shelter.”

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Photo: Abby Carton / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

“It made me realize the privileges that I had, the little things that I take for granted,” added Zhao, who started volunteering with Portland Homeless Family Solutions at age 14.

Norena’s story touched her in a way that left a growing impact on the need to address youth homelessness and provide in-shelter resources and extracurricular opportunities for children and teens.

While simultaneously a freshman in high school, Zhao started a school club where she took what she learned as a volunteer and worked to raise awareness about the issue of youth homelessness.

Towards the end of her freshman year in high school, she began talking to a transitional housing organization and asked them what kind of activities they provided for children and if they needed volunteers. She soon discovered that the organization had unfortunately lost funding for children’s activities and they didn’t have the capacity to manage their volunteers.

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Photo: Abby Carton / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

“So that was kind of the point where I realized I needed to start a nonprofit. I did research and realized there were no services that directly brought weekly programs to shelters for kids experiencing homelessness in Portland, and there was also a big need because even though there is school funding for extracurriculars, youth experiencing homelessness face barriers to participation, including fees, transportation, and documentation.”

So in 2015, Zhao nurtured her idea and ran with it and launched her nonprofit, Kids First Project, which aims to bring programs and services to homeless youth living in shelters in Portland, Oregon. The organization understands the critical need for early childhood development and innovative programs to foster creativity and ensure that no child experiencing homelessness gets left behind.

Zhao’s nonprofit focuses on the acronym of HOPE: Health, Opportunity, Play, and Education. With its team of nearly 400 volunteers, “the organization aims to empower youth experiencing homelessness to reach their full potential and help break the generational cycle of poverty.”

Kids First Project provides in-shelter services and specialized programs for youth experiencing homelessness to participate in extracurricular activities while in a shelter.

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Photo: Abby Carton / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

“We also provide our volunteers, local community groups, and individuals the opportunity to turn their interests into a teachable curriculum to bring to the kids we serve in shelters.”

Some of the programs include peer mentoring for youth, arts and crafts, tutoring, poetry, and life skills.

“Early childhood development is so critical to someone’s life outcomes. What they do when they are a child affects their potential as an adult in terms of success,” said Zhao. She added that programs such as summer camps and other programs like sports programs and educational programs that help build social and cognitive skills are important for future success.

“Our programs try to fill that void. Our programs’ purpose is to bridge the gap between youth experiencing homeless and more privileged peers so they are still able to participate in programs,” she added.

Zhao says the goal of Kids First Project is ultimately for it to not be needed.

“It’s a hefty goal, but I think it can be done. Kids First’s plan for the future is to launch a nation-wide advocacy initiative to ensure that school districts and local governments are providing youth experiencing homelessness across the country with access to the programs and services they need.”

This past summer, Zhao shared that she was an intern in Washington, D.C. working on the law and policy side of homelessness. She learned that youth experiencing homelessness have a lot of obstacles and limitations such as lack of transportation and a lack of awareness by local school districts.

“So basically what we want to do is create a nationwide advocacy and pressure school districts and local governments to prioritize the issue.”

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Photo: Abby Carton / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

According to the Portland Homeless Family Solutions, some of the causes of youth and family homelessness include lack of affordable housing, lack of a living wage, lack of affordable childcare, lack of affordable healthcare, persistent oppression, and discrimination, among other causes.

Family homelessness is rapidly increasing in Portland and other areas and shifting to the younger population, says Zhao.

“Because of this, the demographics of homelessness is younger and affects a lot of children. I think this is different from a hundred years ago when homelessness mostly affected older people. But because of the financial crisis, just like the immense inequality that exists in our country, ultimately it’s causing families to experience homelessness because of a lack of affordable childcare, healthcare, and it makes families more susceptible to experiencing homelessness.”

Zhao adds that there’s often a misconception and stereotype that “homelessness is a result of people being lazy” but that there are so many factors that can cause someone to lose their housing. “It ranges from mental health issues to something as small and simple as healthcare,” said Zhao.

As executive director of Kids First Project, Zhao also juggles undergraduate studies at Stanford. Earlier this month, she declared a major in political science with a minor in human rights. She says she has always been a proponent of experiential learning and applying what you know to make an impact in the community.

“Especially when you have the privilege of getting a higher education or a quality public education, you have a lot of knowledge, experiences, and a lot of skills to make a difference in your community through your own interests and that’s how I see Kids First Project. I love the work I’ve done alongside my team. As I’m getting more knowledge and experiences through my education, I’m able to apply that through my nonprofit,” said Zhao.

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Nilaya Sabnis for L’Oreal / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

Most recently, Zhao was nominated as a L’Oreal 2018 Women of Worth National Honoree with the chance to win $35,000 for her nonprofit. If she receives the award, she will use it to expand services for Kids First Project. Right now, the nonprofit is concentrated in Portland, but with extra funds, Zhao and her team are hoping to not only increase programs but also expand to different cities like Chicago and San Francisco and use the funding to launch an advocacy campaign and provide more services and resources.

“Being a ‘Woman of Worth’ means a lot to me knowing that people believe in both me and Kids First Project. But it also is an honor to be in a such a supportive and empowering community of women making a change in their local communities and beyond,” Zhao told Mornings with Moni.

Zhao hopes to continue focusing on advocacy and bringing about change through outreach and policy.

“It’s getting people to be aware of the issue so there’s greater empathy and understanding, but it’s also getting people to advocate for greater resources for youth experiencing homeless so they are able to get the resources they need,” said Zhao.

Zhao hopes to see youth homelessness become a national priority. “I think that includes changing the dialogue, but also raising awareness and taking action.”

Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni

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