Kids First Project

By: Alisha Zhao

Poverty , Specialist

Today, the average age of a person experiencing homelessness in America is just nine years old. Poverty has negative effects on childhood development. The growth in parts of the brain involved in stress regulation, emotion processing and memory are greatly hindered. That's why it's crucial to provide early intervention for children experiencing homelessness.

From the time a child is born up until their brain is fully developed in their twenties, what they do outside of school matters. Because children living in poverty do not have the same opportunities as their counterparts, they are placed at a much greater disadvantage in terms of reaching their full potential. This disadvantage translates into struggles within and outside of the classroom.

According to UNICEF, there is consistent and strong evidence which shows that:

  • Brain development is most rapid in the early years of life. When the quality of stimulation, support and nurturance is deficient, child development is seriously affected.
  • The effects of early disadvantage on children can be reduced. Early interventions for disadvantaged children lead to improvements in children’s survival, health, growth, and cognitive and social development. 
  • Children who receive assistance in their early years achieve more success at school. As adults they have higher employment and earnings, better health, and lower levels of welfare dependence and crime rates than those who don’t have these early opportunities.
  • Efforts to improve early child development are an investment, not a cost. Available cost-benefit ratios of early intervention indicate that for every dollar spent on improving early child development, returns can be on average 4 to 5 times the amount invested, and in some cases, much higher.

To break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, each community needs to provide a support system of caring adults and peers who can give their time and mentorship to a young person in need. Above all else, student involvement is critical because people learn best from peers.

In order to combat the negative effects poverty has on child development, Kids First Project’s mission is to promote HOPE - Health, Opportunity, Play, Education.

There is a lack of funding going towards disadvantaged children which is why we are 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.

The Kids First Project model is unique in the way that we are a traveling organization. By bringing our programs to already existing organizations and shelters, we are maximizing the benefits of participating organizations while also serving more children compared to sticking to one location. Furthermore, by giving youth programs a platform, we are empowering youth through engaging them in service-learning by allowing them to share their passions with the less fortunate. We currently have a mentoring program created by a Portland State University student as well as Poeteen, a poetry course created by an IB art student in high school, implemented within our program.

To date, Kids First Project volunteers have served a total of 90 hours to children experiencing homelessness through our program nights. We have taken children on field trips to the zoo, provided them with back to school supplies and Christmas gifts, hosted holiday activities and parties, and provided our many recreational and educational programs. In the past three years, Hope For Homeless Club, a chapter of Kids First Project, has served over 800 individuals and donated $1000 worth of service through monetary donations, civic and government classes, drives, and providing entire meals. In the future, we hope to expand our impact by reaching out to the global community and helping children living in poverty all around the world through our services.

Because we are a traveling organization, our organization does not require much money to remain sustainable. In fact, as little as $6 dollars will provide a child with a mentor and necessary materials from LEAD and INSPIRE.  See our donation page to learn more!

Most of our funding comes from grants provided by our sponsors, including Vital Voices, ANN Inc., Youth Service America, and Three Dot Dash. We have received a total of nearly $4000 from our sponsors, using much of it for program materials, marketing merchandise, and organization maintenance, like our website. Outside of funding, we rely on in-kind and monetary donations from our community as well as fundraising to provide the children we serve with necessities like school supplies and clothing.

Our founder, Alisha, is currently a junior at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon. When she was fourteen years old, Alisha began volunteering at a local family homeless shelter. The families she met and befriended became her inspiration to establish the Hope For Homeless Club in 2013. With her passion for community service, she also volunteers her time through chairing Portland’s Chain Reaction council for March of Dimes, serving on Mission Citizen’s community outreach committee, and interning at Portland Homeless Family Solutions.

To recognize her passion and dedication to human rights and service, Alisha was nominated by the mayor to be the first youth in history to serve on Portland’s Human Rights Commission. Within the commission, she works with fourteen other activists in discussing and issuing recommendations related to human rights issues in their community to the mayor and city council.

In 2015, Alisha traveled to Washington D.C. as an ANNpower Fellow and NCAM Youth Ambassador, immersing her in a network of likeminded youth and national leaders. Later in the year, she attended the Trust Women Conference in London as an ANNpower Global Delegate for her work with human trafficking and women’s economic empowerment. Through receiving national leadership training, engaging in international human rights experiences, and committing to years of volunteering in her community, Alisha realized that empowering youth experiencing homelessness in all aspects of their lives was the key to breaking the generational cycle of poverty.

Utilizing national grants and the support of her community at large, Alisha founded the nonprofit Kids First Project, which brings educational and recreational programs to youth experiencing homelessness in her community. She serves as a voice for youth living in poverty, bringing awareness to the many issues poverty entails. Her activism includes speaking as a panelist for the United Nations Human Rights Day event and other community events, as well as meeting with nonprofits, government and school officials, and human rights activists. She has been recognized for her work through PHFS’ Dr. Arnold Rustin Award, City Club of Portland’s Civic Award, and multiple media outlets.

In her free time, Alisha enjoys channeling her desire for adventure and knowledge through traveling, playing lacrosse, hiking, reading, and cooking up her own concoctions. Alisha aspires to double major in political science and international relations with the ultimate dream of working for the United Nations, pursuing human rights on a global scale.

Below is a list of supporting documents and different ways people can help:

PRIORITY #1: Create curriculum

Assist in creating curriculums that can be implemented at our program nights, like an art class or game.

PRIORITY #2: Join our Hope for Homeless Club

The Hope For Homeless Club is a student-run service club that works towards eliminating the stereotypes that come with homelessness and doing our part to end it in our community.

PRIORITY #3: Donate!

We're a 501(c)()3 charity, so your donation is tax deductible!

PRIORITY #4: In Portland? Become a Peer-Mentor

We're looking for responsible individuals who are committed to improving the lives of at-risk-youth

  • I am passionate about human rights and community service. I have been honored as an ANNpower Fellow, NCAM Youth Ambassador and was elected by the mayor to be the first youth in history to serve Portland's Human Rights Commission. Issuing recommendations to human rights issues in my community of 60,000 people is just the beginning. Now I am branching out internationally and have spoken as a panelist for the United Nations Human Rights Day event and Tech 4 Kids conference, as well as meeting countless NPOS, NGOs, school districts and other human rights activists. I aspire to double major in political science and international relations and work for human rights on a global level through with the United Nations someday. When I am not serving as a voice for youth living in poverty, I enjoy channeling my desire for adventure and knowledge through traveling, playing lacrosse, hiking, reading, and cooking up my own concoctions!


Advice To My Peers

Jan. 6, 2016

​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.


Dec. 10, 2015

Thanks to KPTV News for doing such an amazing segment on Kids First Project! Watch the interview here:

Human Rights Day

Dec. 10, 2015

Happy Human Rights Day, celebrated each year on December 10!  This year, the focus was on education as a human right. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN recognizes “the right of everyone to education.” 

A panel of experts from a variety of local organizations will be highlighted to discuss this topic, with special focus given to the accessibility and affordability of education in Portland and around the world. Experts included Dr. General Johnson, PCC Faculty in Health Education and Leadership Development, Koffi Dessou, with the City of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights and TOGO Core, Alisha Zhao, founder of the Kids First Project, Deidre Schuetz, founder of Lanyi Fan, and Nikki Gillis, Officer of Equity, Access, and Inclusion at Mt. Hood Community College. Opportunities for discussion of this important issue will follow the presentations.

Why I do my work

Oct. 31, 2015

Oregon Live

Aug. 31, 2015

"Portland teen hopes her work with homeless kids will help break the cycle of poverty"

The Catalyst Behind Kids First

Aug. 3, 2015

I was selected as one of 50 girls from around the world to attend the leadership conference in Washington DC as a 2015 ANNpower Leadership Fellow. The conference was absolutely life-changing. 

I learned years worth of leadership and mentoring lessons in four short days, all thanks to the powerful network of ANNpower. If I were to write my entire experience, it would be more of a novel than a blog post, so I have compiled my top ten memories and lessons learned from the conference to share and hopefully inspire as much as it inspired me.

Because of ANNpower, I was equipped with the knowledge and inspiration needed to establish Kids First Project and register as a 501c3 nonprofit in one short month. Without Patty’s powerful boa, Kay Krill’s ten life lessons, the bravery of all the Vital Voices Global Leadership awardees, my mentor Priti Patkar, all forty nine changemakers, and many others, Kids First Project would not have been possible. I look forward to utilizing the ANNpower Network for years to come and will encourage any girl who looks to change the world to take advantage of this amazing opportunity.

Youth Ambassador

June 30, 2015

The Youth Service America (YSA) and Festival of Children Foundation announced that I would serve as a National Child Awareness Month Youth Ambassador. This means I will receive funding and training to lead an initiative to counteract the negative effects poverty has on childhood development. 

Along with 51 other youth ambassadors, I will work in my community and form a collective network to raise awareness around issues that are important to young people.  


Read more about this incredible honor here:

Similar Innovations