Massachusetts Teen Works To Improve Literacy Among Kids in Foster Care

Daily Point of Light # 7625 Aug 24, 2023

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Shivani Gulati. Read her story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light. 

Shivani has been volunteering for as long as she can remember. She was about seven years old when she first heard about the foster care system, since her cousin was adopted through foster care. One of the very first things she learned about the foster care system is that some kids may not have backpacks for their schools. Instead, they may have to use trash bags to carry their books and supplies. This shocked Shivani, and shortly afterward, she began volunteering to collect backpacks, toiletries, school supplies and holiday gifts for kids in the foster care system.   

What inspires you to volunteer? 

Every kid deserves a chance. I discovered that nearly half of kids in the foster care system don’t graduate from high school and can fall into poverty and homelessness. The interactions I’ve had and stories I’ve heard about my impact in helping kids read energize me and inspire me to do more. 

Describe your volunteer role with Small Words Impact. 

I was volunteering at the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Boston, helping to renovate an office, when I saw this adorable little four-year-old girl. Our eyes met, and she ran up to me, squeezed my legs and blurted out that she loved me. Then she went around the room and gave every other volunteer a huge hug and told them she loved them. She had just been brought in for emergency placement. It was heartbreaking to see this small child, so filled with love, without a loving family. 

I noticed that this little girl loved all the books we had just organized, but she couldn’t read. Later, I learned from a former foster kid that he hadn’t learned to read fluently until he was a sophomore in high school. I started doing research and found that over 80% of third grade kids in the foster system are not reading on grade level. That inspired me to do what I could to boost literacy among foster kids, and I started a nonprofit organization called Small Words Impact. We work with pre-kindergarten and elementary school kids.

Shivani Gulati sorting books for distribution to kids in the foster care system./Courtesy Shivani Gulati

There are two building blocks to reading. The first is access to books, and the other is being read to. That’s why we take a two-pronged approach. First, we collect and distribute books. So far, my organization has collected over 50,000 books and distributed them among foster care organizations in 15 states. 

Second, I wanted to give the kids the experience of being read to. I decided to record stories on MP3 players that the kids could listen to while following along with the book. I distributed the recordings through Hopewell, a foster care organization in Massachusetts.

I heard so many uplifting stories about the kids and the recordings! One little boy was so attached to his recorder that he wouldn’t let go of it. He even recorded himself reading the story and played it back to himself.  

Today, we’re putting recorders in every DCF office in Massachusetts. These recorders are purchased with grant money I received.   

My hope is that these kids will have the tools and support to read better, gain confidence and love reading and learning. It’s so hard to enjoy learning or catch up when they’re behind, which is why about half of all foster kids don’t graduate high school.   

What has been the most rewarding part of your work? 

By far the most rewarding part of my work is the interactions I’ve had with kids. I love hearing stories of my impact. I love hearing that I can make a difference and do something to support these kids. It energizes me to keep doing more.  

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer? 

I’ve learned that the most important thing is to take the first step. I didn’t start with many books or any recordings. I started with one book drive and a few books, and it snowballed from there. You don’t necessarily know where your volunteering journey will go, and that’s okay. People will appear to help you. So many people have stepped up to help after seeing the value in what I’m doing. Dream big, take the first step, and go for it. 

Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about. 

I’m working on an employment program with two large restaurant and fast food franchises in Massachusetts with the idea that foster kids who age out of the system at 18 and may not be prepared for “real life.” We provide them with a job, career path, mentorship, experience, to help them get a head start on adult life. Even if they don’t stay with the restaurant industry, it’s a great foot in the door into the working world. 

We are also partnering with other organizations to teach life skills, provide tablets, offer mentorship and more. 

Why is it important for people to get involved with causes they care about? 

If someone is passionate about something, they’re doing a service to themselves and others by pursuing it. If you feel that one person can’t make much of an impact, it’s important to know that helping just one person can mean the world to that person. You are so much more powerful than you know. You are doing a service to everyone if you volunteer. 

What do you want people to learn from your story? 

I see myself still volunteering a decade from now. I hope to continue the work I do with foster care. I’m not sure what my career path will be yet, but I want to do something that will make a positive impact on other people’s lives.  

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Shivani? Find local volunteer opportunities. 

Jarmila Gorman