When Pranav Somu first heard about the opportunity to volunteer for the North Alabama Foster Closet, he knew nothing about the organization. He didn’t even know much about the foster family itself.
But after doing some quick research, he learned that half of all adoptive parents give up within a year due to a lack of resources like those provided by the foster closet, like diapers, cribs, seats. cars, clothes, shoes, toys and more, free.
Now, he’s almost as passionate about fostering as he is about programming. Since the summer of 2020, Pranav has spent over 300 hours creating a program that the organization can use to track the tangible items families receive.
Kimberly DuVall, founder and executive director of the nonprofit in Harvest, Alabama, describes the foster closet as “like a free thrift store” for foster, adoptive and kin families who have often need literally everything for the children in their care. It is not uncommon for a child to enter foster care with only their clothes on their backs. The reception office responds to approximately 100 requests per month.
“I realized how important it is to provide a safe and stable environment for children who cannot live with their parents,” says Pranav. “I wanted to help the cause, especially since the pandemic posed even more challenges.”
The result of his volunteer work is an invaluable gift that will help families in northern Alabama. “It was a really helpful way to use my skills, a way to give back to the community and connect to a real-world issue.”
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 welcome closet, walked into the computer science department. to get help. She was hoping to find someone to create a database to replace the Google Form that volunteers and families used, and Pranav jumped at the chance to help her.
“The Google Form was enough when the organization was serving a handful of families,” he says. “But now it has 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 prohibitively expensive.
The Home Closet is a grassroots effort that “grew and grew and grew” after Kimberly started it five years ago, almost by accident.
She and her husband had welcomed and then adopted two children in Colorado before moving to Alabama. “We had a hard time getting in touch with the adoptive and foster parents,” she says. Shortly after starting a Facebook page, she “brought strangers to my house, bringing bins of clothes and shoes.”
Before she knew it, she was inundated with donations – as she left the church, people were bringing her bags and bins. Once, while she was at the grocery store, someone spotted her truck in the parking lot and left some items in the bed. “We live in a really generous community here,” she says.
After a year and a half, Kimberly has secured a warehouse – with no heating, air conditioning or toilets – to store all the donations. Parents could simply walk into the warehouse, grab what they needed, and leave. “But as we grew, companies donated and people gave us money, we needed a system in place,” she says.
At first, their system consisted of a pink filing box where families filled out a form with the date and the items they were packing. When Covid hit and the host family’s closet moved to a new space with heating, air conditioning and toilets, a volunteer started the Google form. It “was so amazing,” Kimberly says, because multiple volunteers could access it. But soon the form became too cumbersome.
And that’s where Pranav stepped in, investing the time to develop a data management app that “can be adjusted to meet the needs of any charity,” he says. The system “reduces redundancy” by keeping track of items requested by families, recording services provided by the nonprofit, and facilitating data collection.
“It’s a more streamlined process that removes clutter and centralizes information,” he explains. “These organizations often fail to obtain grants due to a lack of data. This allows them to increase their reach.
Kimberly explains that now parents will simply log into their account and enter the information for each child. “It will help us better report 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 a younger brother. “I love science, computer science and math, and my extracurricular activities revolve around that,” he says. He enjoys competing on his school’s math and computer science teams and volunteering through Madison City Schools Beast Academy teaching advanced math to young children. He is the captain of the Science Olympiad team.
Even in college, 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 out a scientific way to solve it.
Unsurprisingly, he hopes to study computer science in college and one day work in a software-focused field.
The as-yet-unnamed app he developed for the North Alabama Foster Closet could be used by other similar organizations, Pranav says, who could adapt it to their own needs.
Earlier this year, Pranav impressed the board with an update on the program. He will always have access “on the back-end” and can work on the system if necessary. “I’m done now,” he said. “We’re just testing and making sure there are no bugs.” So far, a few families have tried it and recommended adjustments.
“Apparently I signed him for a lifetime commitment,” Kimberly laughs. “He’s an amazing youngster. To think he started this at 15! He’s such a gentle spirit with a kind and generous heart. Very inspiring.”
To learn more about North Alabama Foster Closet, visit northalabamafostercloset.com. Check out the organization’s Amazon Wishlist at https://a.co/9vk0wEA.