Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Olivia Zhang of Cancer Kids First Is Helping To Change Our World
Surround yourself with strong colleagues. Having members on your team that are hardworking and dedicated to achieving the goal you want for your organization/company is so important. Without a good team behind you, you won’t be able to succeed. There have been many instances when I chose friends to hold leadership positions in CKF simply because they were my friends, and I felt obligated to give them a higher position. Nonetheless, I should’ve realized sooner that sometimes you have to separate your professional life and your personal life. Though it can be nice having your friends work with you, at the end of the day, making sure you appoint people with the qualifications to direct your organization leads to much higher results.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Olivia Zhang.
Olivia Zhang is a sophomore at Mclean High School. She founded Cancer Kids First last year at the age of 14, and now leads 100+ people including directors, volunteers, and chapter heads. Since its founding, Cancer Kids First has aided close to 20 pediatric cancer hospitals, raised over $4000, and donated more than 600 toys and books. Besides her passion for helping kids with cancer, Olivia is also invested in helping the oceans. She holds a leadership position at Mclean Ocean X, a club at her school focused on drawing attention to the problems our oceans face. Olivia is also a part of her school’s Girls Leadership club and the Red Cross club.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in a close-knit community in Mclean, Virginia. I volunteered for many different organizations throughout my childhood, such as Stop Hunger Now, because helping others has always been valued in my family. My parents also prioritized education, so my little sister and I often attended out-of-school academic classes. We played many different sports as well, ranging from swim to lacrosse. Writing, art, and singing were also some extracurriculars we participated in — having a busy after school schedule was common for me!
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Each day, 43 children are diagnosed with cancer in the US. Each year, 15,590 children are diagnosed, making cancer the leading cause of death in disease within American children. Despite these facts, only 4% of government funding for medical research is allocated to pediatric oncology.
Cancer Kids First works towards raising more awareness about pediatric cancer and provides patients with the chance at a normal childhood. CKF supplies pediatric patients with toy and book donations, cards, coloring pages, care packages, and more. We strive to normalize the hospital environment, inspire patients to keep fighting, and spark some joy within their lives through our many programs.
Kids with cancer spend much of their lives battling a horrific disease, exuding bravery no adult could match. Our children deserve more. All warrior angels deserved more. Though we cannot take away the pain and suffering cancer has brought into so many lives, we can help ease the pain — and that’s exactly what Cancer Kids First aims to do.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My grandfather passed away in August 2018 due to lung, bone, and brain cancer. Watching cancer slowly take over his body was the most difficult and heartbreaking experience I’ve ever had to go through. My elementary school teacher, who I visited every day for years even after I graduated from her class, also passed from cancer shortly after my grandfather. Their deaths made me realize that I want to do something to help the patients, and their families, as they fight this monster; no one should ever have to feel the pain that comes when you have to watch a loved one lose themselves slowly.
Cancer Kids First allows me to honor not only my grandfather and my teacher, but all those who have passed because of cancer, and all those lives cancer has touched.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Right after my grandfather’s diagnosis of cancer back in 2016, when I was 10 years old, I started selling things I made to raise money for his treatments. I sold paintings, drawings, bookmarks, and jewelry — basically any craft I could think of. I even had a meeting spot on the playground to secretly sell binder covers I drew after a teacher had yelled at me for selling items to my classmates. In 7th grade, I amped up my efforts when I heard my teacher had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I continued selling crafts, but this time, I did it through multiple Instagram accounts I made.
Regardless of how many hours I spent making crafts, or how many people bought from me, I wasn’t able to save my grandfather or my teacher. I had lost too many people to cancer; not taking action wasn’t an option anymore. But, I didn’t just want to sell crafts to raise money for treatment. I wanted to do more, and make a difference in the lives of individual patients and their families on a much larger scale. I envisioned an organization that would touch lives around the country — Cancer Kids First.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
The very first thing I did to get Cancer Kids First started was draft out an idea of what I wanted CKF to accomplish, and how to do it. I’m a huge planner, so I went into all the details including the companies we could contact, how we would grow our reach, etc. I then filed all the forms required to become a nonprofit, including the Articles of Incorporation. Afterward, I created social media accounts, a website, and reached out to people I thought would be interested in joining Cancer Kids First.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
For me, the most interesting — and exciting — story that occurred since the foundation of Cancer Kids First was when Caly Bevier replied to my DM on Instagram. I had requested to display her story on our website’s HOPE page, a page centered around sharing cancer survivors’ stories to instill hope within patients. At that time, CKF wasn’t as big, so I didn’t expect a response. When I saw her message, I immediately showed my mom and we both freaked out together. We had watched Caly on America’s Got Talent Season 11, and I remember how powerful I thought her singing was. I was so pumped we were able to share a verified singer’s story on my organization’s website!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Although it wasn’t funny at the time, the funniest mistake I made was trying to work on all aspects of Cancer Kids First by myself. I was extremely nitpicky with how I wanted Cancer Kids First to run, so I made the entire website on my own, as well as all social media platforms. I also came up with all the events and fundraisers, and managed each volunteer. Looking back on it now, I realize how much of a rookie move that was. Many all-nighters could’ve been avoided if I realized sooner that it is okay to ask for help! Now that Cancer Kids First has multiple directors in charge of different facets of our organization, CKF runs much more smoothly — and we get so much more done. New directors also brought in tons of new ideas to the table. We have so much planned for the next months!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
One of my board members, Jo, was probably my biggest mentor when I started. Jo explained the purpose of each government form I had to file to create Cancer Kids First, and she helped me draft out the organization’s bylaws.
As cliché as this sounds, my parents were also huge mentors. My dad never failed to take time out of his busy schedule to guide me in coding a certain part of the website or filing tax-exempt forms. My mom works at a nonprofit, so she gave me tons of advice regarding how I should run Cancer Kids First board meetings, and how to accurately manage people.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital was the very first hospital Cancer Kids First helped, and the volunteer coordinator there was the first person I ever contacted about my nonprofit. She was so sweet and gave me so much hope for my organization. We still keep in contact about future CKF projects to this day!
I also have to mention all my friends, especially Adona, Anna, Leah, and Nidhi; from sending me encouraging messages to actively helping out with Cancer Kids First, they were my biggest cheerleaders, and I couldn’t have built this organization without them.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Elena (Ellie) Aquino, the first pediatric cancer patient we helped through the CKF Care Packages program, is a 2 year old who loves all things scary and weird — just like her big brother. In late August 2020, Ellie was admitted for brain surgery after her parents noticed her limping. Doctors were able to remove the tumor and later discovered that it was Anaplastic Ependymoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer. Currently, Ellie is continuing chemotherapy.
Ellie will always be a patient that stands out to me because of her mom’s reaction to our Care Packages Program request. We had offered to buy Ellie’s dream Christmas gift and some post-radiation graduation presents. Ellie’s mom is an immigrant in the US, so she doesn’t get support from family and friends since most are back home in the Philippines. Ellie’s mom told us she had cried when she saw our message because we saved their Christmas. Her reaction warmed my heart and reminded me once again why I started Cancer Kids First in the first place. Brave fighters like Ellie endure so much throughout their childhood, inspiring those around her. Their parents go through so much as well. Being able to spark even just a little bit of joy within their lives is an amazing reward.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
To expand our organization and impact, donations are the biggest way you can support Cancer Kids First. All donations will be used to purchase care packages for pediatric patients, toys and books, and will cover all shipping fees/extra expenses needed. You can either donate yourself or hold a fundraiser for us!
Volunteering, or referring a potential volunteer, is another way you can help. Our volunteers are the backbone of Cancer Kids First, and we could not have accomplished everything we’ve done without them.
Sharing our mission with others, whether that be our socials or our website, is one last way you can help. This will aid us in enlarging our organization’s impact around the country.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Surround yourself with strong colleagues. Having members on your team that are hardworking and dedicated to achieving the goal you want for your organization/company is so important. Without a good team behind you, you won’t be able to succeed. There have been many instances when I chose friends to hold leadership positions in CKF simply because they were my friends, and I felt obligated to give them a higher position. Nonetheless, I should’ve realized sooner that sometimes you have to separate your professional life and your personal life. Though it can be nice having your friends work with you, at the end of the day, making sure you appoint people with the qualifications to direct your organization leads to much higher results.
- Not getting a response back is okay. I used to beat myself up when a company or public charity didn’t respond to one of my emails; I had always assumed that I had done something wrong. However, I’ve learned that everyone has a busy schedule, and your email just might not be a top priority — and that’s okay!
- A “no” is not the end of the world. In relation to #2, I was often told “no” by companies and hospitals regarding different events I had wanted Cancer Kids First to hold. Seeing that simple word used to discourage me, but I know now that it’s totally fine if someone is not interested in something you have to offer — simply reach out to someone else!
- No amount of research will prepare you. Getting others’ thoughts is crucial! Although it is your organization, you don’t need to do everything on your own. Asking for input from others brings in a variety of fresh ideas since everyone has different ways of thinking. Along with new ways to refine your organization, asking for others’ guidance allows you to learn what to do, and what not to do. If you know someone who is an expert in a field you don’t understand, the information they give you will prove to be 10 times more helpful than a Google search — I promise!
Think about it this way: 1 person can build a house, but having multiple people working together to build one will get the job done not only quicker, but also with better results.
- Connections prove to be one of the most essential ways to grow your organization. It’s not enough to have good ideas on ways you and your team can help the world. You need to utilize your connections with others to spread the word about what your organization is actually doing. This will increase the donations you receive, the number of volunteers, and just general exposure for your organization.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Our world is full of people who need help — problems that need to be solved. If you can better someone’s life, why not do it? Don’t wait for a life-changing event like I did to take action. If you’re passionate about something, channel your passion into creating something that will benefit society. Choose to make a mark on the world. Choose to change the world for the better.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
If I could have a meal with anybody in the world, I would have to choose Richard Davis, the CEO of Make-a-Wish America. I hope Cancer Kids First will one day be able to grow into an organization as big and impactful as Make-a-Wish. If I got the opportunity to sit down and have a meal with Mr. Davis, I would ask for tips to help grow CKF, as well as learn more about his journey in becoming a successful CEO.
How can our readers follow you online?
If you’re passionate about making a difference in the lives of pediatric cancer patients, be sure to follow @cancerkidsfirst, on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!