When Pranav Somu first heard about the opportunity to volunteer for the North Alabama Foster Closet, he didn’t know anything about the organization. He didn’t even know much about foster care itself.
But after doing some quick research, he learned that half of all foster parents quit within a year because of a lack of resources like the ones the foster closet provides, such as diapers, cribs, car seats, clothing, shoes, toys and more, free of charge.
Now he’s almost as passionate about foster care as he is about programming. Since the summer of 2020, Pranav has spent more than 300 hours creating a program the organization can use to keep track of the tangible items families receive.
Kimberly DuVall, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit in Harvest, Alabama, describes the foster closet as being “like a free thrift store” for foster, adoptive and kinship families who often need, literally, everything for the children in their care. It’s not unusual for a child to enter foster care with only the clothes on their back. The foster closet fills some 100 requests per month.
“I realized how important it is to provide a safe, stable environment for kids who can’t live with their parents,” Pranav says. “I wanted to help with the cause, especially given that the pandemic posed even more challenges.”
The result of his volunteer work is a priceless gift that will help families throughout north Alabama. “It felt like a really worthwhile way to use my skills, a way to give back to the community and connect to a real-world problem.”
Pranav, a junior at James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama, started the project after Emily Harris, a chemistry teacher at his school who volunteers for the foster closet, went to the computer science department for help. She hoped to find someone to create a database to replace the Google form volunteers and families had been using, and Pranav jumped at the chance to help.
“The Google form sufficed when the organization served a handful of families,” he says. “But now it contains thousands of entries and is slow to use. It takes time and manual labor. They needed a better data management and communication system.” But for a nonprofit that relies on grants and volunteers, a subscription to such a system would be cost-prohibitive.
The foster closet is a grassroots effort that “grew and grew and grew” after Kimberly started it five years ago, almost by happenstance.
She and her husband had fostered, then adopted two children in Colorado before moving to Alabama. “We found it hard to connect with foster and adoptive parents,” she says. Soon after she started a Facebook page, she “had strangers coming to my house, bringing bins of clothes and shoes.”
Before she knew it, she was overwhelmed with donations — as she was leaving church, people would bring her bags and bins. Once, while she was in the grocery store, someone spotted her truck in the parking lot and left items in the bed. “We live in a really generous community up here,” she says.
After a year and a half, Kimberly secured a warehouse — with no heat, air-conditioning or restrooms — to store all the donations. Parents could just walk into the warehouse, grab what they needed and leave. “But as we grew, and businesses donated and people gave us money, we needed a system in place,” she says.
At first, their system consisted of a pink file box where families would fill out a form with the date and the items they took. When Covid hit and the foster closet moved into a new space with heat, air-conditioning and restrooms, a volunteer started the Google form. It “has been so amazing,” Kimberly says, because multiple volunteers could access it. But soon the form became too cumbersome.
And that’s where Pranav came in, investing the time to develop a data management application that “can be adjusted to fit the needs of any charitable organization,” he says. The system “reduces redundancy” by providing tracking for items requested by families, logging the services the nonprofit provides and making it easier to collect data.
“It’s a more streamlined process that removes clutter and centralizes information,” he explains. “These organizations often fail to get grants because of a lack of data. This lets them increase their outreach.”
Kimberly explains that now the parents will just log into their account and enter information for each child. “It’s going to help us report better to donors and apply for grants,” she says.
Pranav’s father is a chemist and his mother is working on her master’s degree in computer science. He has one younger brother. “I enjoy science, computer science and math, and my extracurriculars revolve around that,” he says. He loves to compete on his school’s math and computer science teams and volunteers through the Madison City Schools Beast Academy to teach younger children advanced math. He is the captain of the Science Olympiad team.
Even in middle school, Pranav seemed destined to do great things for his community. His team won a national award in the eCybermission web competition in which students choose a real-world problem and work on a scientific way to solve it.
Not surprisingly, he hopes to study computer science in college and work in a software-oriented field one day.
The as-yet-unnamed application he developed for the North Alabama Foster Closet could be used by other similar organizations, Pranav says, which could tailor it to their own needs.
Earlier this year, Pranav impressed the board of directors when he gave them an update on the program. He will still have access “on the back end” and can work on the system when necessary. “I’m done now,” he says. “We’re just testing and making sure there are no bugs.” So far, a few families have tried it and recommended tweaks.
“Apparently, I signed him up for a lifelong commitment,” Kimberly says with a laugh. “He is an amazing young person. To think he started this at 15! He’s such a sweet spirit with a kind, generous heart. Very inspiring.”
To learn more about the North Alabama Foster Closet, go to northalabamafostercloset.com. View the organization’s Amazon Wish List at https://a.co/9vk0wEA.