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Exclusive interview with Nick Vujicic : Future Leaders Conquer New Heights

Nick Vujicic Youth Leadership Retreat

By Cassandra Hsiao

It’s happening all around the world especially among the young people. We hear about it everyday in the news – bullying, lying, stealing, dishonesty, etc. It all sums up into three words: crisis of character. Our generation’s future lies with the young leaders. Where can teenagers learn about all the aspects of leadership?

At Nick Vujicic’s youth leadership retreat, of course!

Nick Vujicic is an international motivational speaker. He was born without limbs and leads a ridiculously great life. His organization, Attitude is Altitude, planned the entire retreat, which lasted from Friday , May 4, to Sunday, May 6, 2012, located at Camp Whittier, a 55 acre resident camp hidden in the woodlands. The camp was especially designed for kids in grades 6-8, with fifty participants in all.

“The idea for this retreat was sparked by the desire to touch the lives of youth by interacting with them in a format that was more involved than a 60-minute talk,” described Daniela Munther, the director of the camp. She also contributed her effort and creativity by preparing the camp’s curriculum. “We wanted to offer an experience that equipped students with more life and leadership tools as well as more time with Nick.”

The three-day retreat consisted of a full day high and low ropes course, workshops, sessions, discussions, and fun-filled, challenging games and activities. The five different presentations challenged campers to think deeper about the meaning of leadership, find their identity as leaders, step out of their comfort zone, experience breakthroughs, and demonstrate character in their daily life.

“I’m just really excited to see all the activities effectively enforcing the importance of servant leaders, being a follower or a leader, and teamwork as well,” Nick said.  “Courage is also important. Half the kids here don’t want to do the high ropes. It’s pretty scary, doing something you’ve never done before, to actually stretch the limit a little bit. I want to let them know that they can accomplish more than they think they can if they give it a shot.”

Many of the campers agreed that the ropes course took them to whole new heights (literally).

“It was challenging but it was very fun,” said camper Grace Wu, age 13. “Even though there were some times when I wanted to get down as soon as possible, I pushed myself to the end and I’m glad I did, because the experience was amazing.”

Along with the flexibility of roles and courage in leadership, there are many other characteristics of a leader.

“First of all, it’s honesty. That goes hand-in-hand with integrity. As leaders, we need to be authentic. We need to be real. We want to make a difference in people’s lives. You have to have integrity, and you can’t be fake,” Nick reflected.

At the camp, teasing, even just for fun, was strictly prohibited.

“We have to respect ourselves in the right way, and then once you’ve learned how to respect yourself as a human being, then and only then you can love someone else. I asked some teenagers, ‘What if no one ever teased you? Would you ever bully anyone else?’ They said straight away, ‘Nope. If no one teased me, why would I tease anyone else?’ People tease because someone teases them.”

Nick’s reinforcement of no teasing set a safe and upbeat atmosphere in camp. In fact, the camp was such a big success that Altitude is Attitude might organize an international camp next year. Both counselors and campers can’t wait for the next camp! Everyone took away priceless experiences from camp.

“I really loved camp! I feel like I grew as a leader as much as the campers did,” exclaimed Alexa Valadez, one of the eight counselors. “There were a lot of challenges for me as well, for example, recognizing when to step back as a person in charge and letting the campers take control. It was really rewarding to see them turn into leaders.”

The campers also talked about their lessons learned.

“One part that stood out to me was when I learned that we had to be a serving leader and that we have to be open to their ideas,” said camper Carolyn Lee, age 13.

“The best part was learning more about how to become a better leader. Each person has their own individual talents and gifts that they can use in a shared leadership,” said camper Grace Wu. “Everyone can then pull together and they can form a good team.”

Daniela Munther (director) explained that young leaders are not just leaders of tomorrow, but also leaders of today.

“Not to train them up in leadership skills would be to rob our society of leaders.  And without leaders, we rob our society of something grand and invaluable – change!” Daniela emphasized. “It is important for young people to become leaders so that they can become catalysts for positive change in our world. Without their contribution, little will ever be accomplished.”

According to Nick Vujicic, the power of multiplication is priceless.

“We can actually be the difference. We all have a purpose in this world. We can make it a better place and it starts with us.”

Published @



Walnut Youths’ Can-Do Attitude Feeds Orphans

The food local children collected will benefit Operation DREAM, a charity a family started to provide food to poor children in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

By Melanie C. Johnson

Cassandra Hsiao began her effort to collect canned good for orphanages in Haiti and the Dominican Republic with four friends.

The young Walnut girl’s group soon grew to 10.  That 10 turned into several packed cars.

Cassandra and her team, as she calls the other youth who braved going door to door in Walnut, West Covina, and Rowland Heights to ask for food donations, collected 550 pounds of canned and packaged goods that will be shipped to the two countries in early January by Operation DREAM, a charity that combats hunger.

“They are the ones who came out with me every Saturday just giving their time to the poor,” she said of the group.  “They sacrificed their time to collect these cans.”

Walnut Patch Editor Melanie and Me

Besides experiencing a few slammed doors, Cassandra said she and the other children involved in the food drive also learned a valuable lesson about the power of youth to make a difference in their communities and the world.

That was the hope of the founders of Operation DREAM, specifically the brainchild behind the charity, 16-year-old Karin Olivo.

Karin, touched by television infomercials featuring starving children in Africa and other countries, told her parents she wanted to do something to help, said dad George Olivo.  She started with a bake sale in 2009 where she raised $1,000.   The family sent the money to an orphanage in Haiti, but that was not enough for Karin, who wanted to see those she was helping in person, Olivo said.

The Palos Verdes teen kept after her mom and dad for a year until they agreed to take the trip.  Olivo’s parents immigrated to the United States from the neighboring Dominican Republic.  After speaking with a cousin there, the family of four made plans for a visit to both countries and collected 800 pounds of clothing to give to those in need.

Checking expiration date of canned foods

What they saw when they got there was worse than they imagined, Olivo said.

“We imagined the worst and it was worse than that,” said the FBI agent.   “It really changed our lives.”

Karin said she was specifically drawn to Haiti after doing some research and finding out it was the poorest country in the world.  Her father’s ties to the Dominican Republic and its proximity to Haiti made that country a natural fit as well for the charity.

“They are a lot like us and like me,” she said of the children she has met in the orphanages.  “I love to help people in general and when I found out there was a direct connection through the cousins, I wanted to help.”

Karin has visited the two countries three times, including a few months after the 2010 earthquake.  She also goes to elementary and middle schools to talk to students about Operation DREAM.

George Olivio, Me, Karin Olivio

On Saturday, the Olivo family came to Cassandra’s home to help the group pack their food into boxes for delivery.  The group of children involved in the local effort and their parents bent over opened boxes searching for expired items.  Shipments can be completely rejected if inspectors in the Dominican Republic find too many expired cans.

As Olivo helped the group, he said he felt proud of the effort of Walnut’s youth.

“This is what our vision was, to empower kids to help and then to go out and become leaders,” he said.  “We believe those who give and those who receive will both be blessed.”

Published @

Living with Cerebral Palsy

Angela & Celine performed “Baby” & “Never Say Never” – Great performance !!! I bet Justin Bieber would love how you sang

Last Saturday (11/13/11), even though it was cold and rainy outside, it was so warm inside Mrs. Eva Westfall(Board of Treasure) ‘s house, because we were all gathered for a good cause. I was honored to host an annual “Love Our Kids” fundraising event for Cerebral Palsy CareNet Organization. They provide services to individuals with Cerebral Palsy, and the money we raised goes to help children with Cerebral Palsy.

Never heard of Cerebral Palsy?  CP is a movement disorder caused by the permanent brain injuries that affect an infant during the time of birth or pregnancy causes the loss of abilities to lead a normal life. Their gross motor skills are affected, and kids often use crutches, or wheelchairs to move around. Kids with spastic CP, the most common type of CP, can’t relax their muscles or their muscles are really stiff. Even in some cases, kids have trouble speaking or can’t speak at all.

CP can’t be cured, but steps can be taken to help the child to start leading a normal life. Polfit Wellness is one of the many therapies that help them develop skills such as walking, sitting, bending, and crawling. Polfit Wellness offers Polish Fitness Training which include one-to-one, “hands-on” neuro-muscular retraining. They offer families of children with special needs a kind of help and hope that may change their lives for the better.

Angela Oyama and Benjamin Sun

Two of my friends have CP. Since birth, 14-year-old Angela Oyama and 15-year-old Benjamin Sun have been on their wheelchairs. They struggle on a daily basis with cerebral palsy. Benjamin has unpredictable seizures as a result of the injury and trauma to certain areas of his brain. His mother, Rebecca, devotes her entire day attending to him but at times broke down after noticing her son’s helplessness. But now through her faith in Jesus whom is her central source of strength, she finds the confidence to build a rewarding life together with her son.

Angela is a courageous and beautiful girl. She attends regular school despite all the obstacles she faces every day. She’s a serious die-hard fan of Justin Bieber, and her biggest dream is to meet JB. In fact, for one of the fund-raising programs, she and her friend Celine Chen sang two of Justin’s songs – “Baby” and “Never Say Never!” At the end she even raised herself a little in her wheelchair and shouted, “Never say never, everyone!” I think Justin Bieber would have LOVED their performance, and I sincerely hope that their paths will cross someday.

Although their journey is full of challenges, hardship, and difficulties, they show great endurance and perseverance despite their physical disabilities. Both of them maintain a regular schedule of physical and occupational therapy. You see, it is not only a vigorous workout to accomplish normal everyday tasks, but CP creates financial challenges. It’s a financial burden for the parents to care for a child with CP. That’s why CPCareNet gathered to financially aid those affected by CP.

At the event, everyone in attendance had a goal: not only to raise funds  but to educate people outside of CPCareNet about CP and to understand the disorder themselves. If you would like to donate, please contact me at this email

Published @ Walnut Patch


Feature on Walnut Patch

Justin Bieber with Scholastic Kid Reporter Cassandra Hsiao

Young Journalist, Gifted Student Pursues Passions 

Cassandra Hsiao, a student at Capistrano Connections Academy, pushes to make her academic and career dreams come true.

By Melanie C. Johnson

Cassandra Hsiao’s work as a journalist has taken her to art exhibits and musicals.

She has wielded her microphone on the red carpet at movie premieres and interviewed scientists and politicians.  When she isn’t working a red carpet, she’s writing historical fiction or fantasy short stories or updating her blog.

For Cassandra, it’s all in a day’s work, but what makes her accomplishments that much more remarkable is that she is 11 years old.

The sixth grader serves as a member of the Scholastic Kid Press Corps, a team of around 50 reporters ages 10 to 14 picked to cover current events, entertainment and breaking news across the nation.

When teen phenomenon Justin Beiber hit the red carpet for the premiere of his autobiographical documentary “Never Say Never,” Cassandra nudged her way in among the adult reporters to get in two questions.  She asked him how he stays balanced and if he does chores around the house, she said. The answer was yes to the latter, Cassandra said.

“When Justin came out, it was quite crazy,” she said.  “Fans held up posters that said ‘Marry me Justin.’”

The Malaysian born Walnut resident has used her reporting talents to get interviews with cast members from “Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” craft movie reviews, and get the scoop on mummies at a California Science Center exhibit.

“It’s not just about asking questions,” she said of her interviewing style.  “I want to have a conversation.  I don’t just want to have them answer questions. I want to relate to them.”

Journalism might seem like an unusual pursuit for a sixth grader, but Cassandra is not your typical student from a traditional school.

Two years ago, her parents pulled her out of Westhoff Elementary School and enrolled her in Capistrano Connections Academy, a virtual public school for Southern California students.  The school’s independent-study program allows her to take classes at an accelerated pace, including several Gifted and Talented Education courses.  Cassandra, who will be starting seventh grade next year, is going to be taking geometry, something normally reserved for high school sophomores.

The straight-A student belongs to the school’s English and broadcasting clubs, and does several extracurricular activities including playing the flute and piano and taking tennis lessons.

Her younger brother Jeremy also is enrolled in Connections Academy.

“I can challenge myself to new heights,” said Cassandra of her school.   “I can take my studies far.”

Mom Grace Gan said she opted to take her daughter out of traditional public school because Cassandra would often finish her work faster than many of the other students and would have to wait to be able to move on to the next lesson. The teachers at Connections are young, ambitions and energetic, so Gan said she decided to go with that particular school.

Gan said the first three months proved to be an adjustment period for her and her daughter.

“Scheduling was the difficult part,” Gan said.  “Also, it was hard for her to get used to sitting down and doing her work all by herself.”

But Cassandra did adjust and now is able to work independently at her own pace and keep up with all of her other activities outside of school, Gan said.

Allyson Curtis, the middle school admissions teacher at Connections, has taught Cassandra in her literature studies class.

“She’s very successful in our school because she’s very self motivated,” Curtis said.  “She does not need a lot of direction.”

Curtis describes her class as a sort of virtual book club where a group of 15 students get together online to discuss the books they read and share presentations on an assigned topic.  Cassandra definitely stands out, Curtis said.

“She’s very articulate,” Curtis said.  “Her writing is fabulous. She’s not shy in any way. She’s a very self assured young lady.”

Cassandra is not shy about pursing all of her interests.  She has written several fictional stories. One of her works, titled “The Night Ride,” earned her a second place prize last July in a Chino Hills Library contest.  Cassandra has a writing coach, young adult novelist Jonathan Friesen.  She is working on a Peter Pan sequel from the perspective of Wendy, she said.  Cassandra also loves to draw.

“I really want to follow my passions,” she said.  “Journalism, writing, reading and drawing are all my passions.”

First published @

Feature on Inland Empire Family

Cassandra Hsiao on the job at Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides World Premiere

Spotlight: Meet Cassandra Hsiao, ace reporter

Walnut student balances fledgling journalism career with school, extracurricular interests

June 8, 2011 by Caitlin Adams

Cassandra Hsiao is no cub in the world of journalism; although she is only 12 years old, she has already interviewed stars Justin Bieber and Ashley Tisdale, and recently covered the world premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at Disneyland last month.

Hsiao was selected for induction into the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps for the 2010-11 school year, and has reported on local news and politics, current events and reviewed movies. She covered the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in L.A. last month (one entrant brought his invention with him, a complete portable drum set––in his pants) and besides the Pirates of the Caribbean premiere, she also reported on the premieres of Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure and Never Say Never.

Cassandra was selected for the program based on her writing skills; Scholastic News selects a team of Kid Reporters ages 10-14 to be members of the Press Corp each year, and to report on breaking news in their hometowns. Cassandra submitted an essay on what makes the Southern California area special and was selected for the program as a correspondent for her area.

Apart from her budding career in journalism, Cassandra also happens to be an outstanding student. Two years ago she enrolled at Capistrano Connections Academy,  a virtual public school program serving students throughout Southern California, because she wanted to learn at a more accelerated pace.  She’s finishing algebra now in the sixth grade, and will begin studying geometry as a seventh-grader. She’s also a member of the school’s English and broadcasting clubs, and enjoys fundraising for charitable causes and volunteering at a local senior citizens’ center. She also plays several sports and performs in local theater productions.

First Published @

When YOU Are Career Day!

Kid Reporter encourages students to follow their passion

Find out what the life of an FBI agent is all about! Kid Reporter Cassandra Hsiao talks with George Olivo in this article.

Career Day at a school in Los Angeles recently included some exciting speakers, including an FBI agent. But there was also….

“Let’s welcome the Scholastic Kid Reporter, Cassandra Hsiao!” said the announcer at Palos Verdes Intermediate School in Los Angeles, California, introducing me to 300+ 6th graders. Applause still resounded in my ears even after the clapping died down.

With shaking hands, I felt a flutter of nerves in my stomach. I was tongue-tied at first, with my teeth set on edge. I took a deep breath, standing behind the podium facing the audience. My three-minute speech was to encourage students to follow their path of passion and how my own passion in writing led me to be a Scholastic Kid Reporter.

I told them writing gives me confidence and makes me feel like a complete version of myself. Using a lesson from the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I explained that Flint Lockwood knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a great inventor and how he continued to follow his passion.

I expressed that the students could follow their passions too. I ended with the quote, “Dream until your dream comes true.” I was warmly embraced by the enthusiastic applause of the students.

Right after that, George Olivo, who has been working in the FBI Los Angeles division for the last 13 years, stepped up to the podium. His talk was about core values, strong character, and peer pressure. He demonstrated that peer pressure can be powerful, and if you make a wrong turn at the crossroads, it could mess up your whole life.

“’Kids are the future,’” Olivo told me in an interview after the presentations. “I have confidence in the young people today, but they still need guidance. I want to show them what is possible, and that the sky’s the limit.”

I think he did just that in his speech. I only hope the students got the same inspiration from me.

@Scholastic,INC First Published at

I’m [insert name], FBI

Do you have what it takes to be a Fed?

Scholastic News Kid Reporter Cassandra Hsiao with FBI agent George Olivo at Palos Verdes Intermediate School in Los Angeles, California. (Photo courtesy Cassandra Hsiao)

Kid Reporter Cassandra Hsiao writes about her own experience as a speaker on career day at a school in Los Angeles.

The life of an FBI agent may not be exactly what you expect—especially if your idea of an agent is based on scenes from movies.

“To be an FBI agent you have to be a U.S. citizen of at least 23 years of age, have a 4-year college degree, and pass a polygraph test,” said George Olivo, who has been working in the FBI Los Angeles division for the last 13 years. “But the most important thing is you must have strong character and core values.”

Olivo organizes motivation talks to elementary and middle school students. Recently, he spoke to 300 6th graders at the Palos Verdes Intermediate School in Los Angeles, California. He focused much of his talk on peer pressure.

“Many people think that peer pressure is like a river, and you are on a raft,” he said. “They think that if the flow is going the wrong way, you can simply jump off the raft and onto the banks of the river.”

To demonstrate his idea of what peer pressure is like, Olivo showed a clip from the Disney movie Lion King. In the clip, Simba is running for his life as he is chased by a stampede of wildebeests. The branch he hangs onto is his lifesaver. As it breaks, his father Mufasa grabs him and throws him to safety. Olivo explained that the only way to escape peer pressure is to hold on to good character like Simba hung on to the branch.

Olivo also talked about how to become an agent.

“The first step in becoming an FBI agent is the step you’re taking right now,” Olivo told the students. “Before you can be trusted with large things, you must first prove yourself in smaller things.”

Students applauded enthusiastically at the end of the presentation.

“I learned that peer pressure can pull you down and it is hard to resist,” Julianna B., 11, told the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps.

“I thought it was interesting how you don’t look at the outside of a person but inside of them,” said Erin K., 12. “If you go on the wrong turn, it could mess up your life.”

“I learned that peer pressure can influence your decisions,” said Blake P.,11.

Being part of the FBI is a joy for Olivo.

“I think just being able to represent the United States in this capacity is an honor for me,” Olivo said. “Being trusted by our nation to defend against terrorist attacks and against people who want to do this country harm is a privilege.”

@Scholastic,INC First Published at

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