Texas Teen Spreads Love, Uplifts and Encourages Through Letters

Daily Point of Light # 7774 Mar 22, 2024

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

Iris Lai was born in Singapore but grew up in Dallas and Plano, Texas. Today, Iris is a first-year student at Case Western Reserve University with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in business. Her hobbies include dance and playing the piano for the last 10 years. But a bigger passion is uplifting people through the connection of an encouraging letter.

Iris has always loved the way she felt when she received a letter from a loved one. She relates how cards and letters always make her feel better. They’re physical reminders that someone cares enough to send a personal note, whether it’s a note of encouragement, an expression of love or the simple sharing of what’s going on in someone’s life. During the pandemic, many were suddenly isolated from friends and family. Some, like first responders and healthcare workers, had to put themselves at right by caring for people who could potentially be carrying the virus. People’s mental health worsened, in some cases, significantly.

As Iris was chatting with her close friend about ways to relieve lockdown boredom and make a difference in people’s lives, she remembered the joy she felt every time she received correspondence from a friend or family member. And so, an idea was born to let strangers uplift each other. That’s how Letters of Gold was born.

Letters of Gold opens the door for people to volunteer in a most unexpected way. It provides a simple way for anyone to get involved; and these letters can be healing to the writer, too. If you’re bored, write someone an inspiring note on the Letters of Gold website. If you’re feeling sad, uplift someone with a note that expresses kindness and caring. If you’re overwhelmed, write someone a note of encouragement. In helping others, we can help ourselves.

Iris, co-founder/executive director of Letters of Gold.

What inspires you to volunteer?

I feel it’s my duty to make a positive impact while I’m here. I am inspired by seeing people smile after I do something positive for them, lift them up and improve their mood.

Tell us about your volunteer role with Letters of Gold.

I am the co-founder and executive director of Letters of Gold. Our mission is to spread encouragement through letters that uplift, inspire, bring smiles to faces and help them see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Our letters are crowdsourced through our website. Every couple of months we focus on a group in need; people see these needs and write letters to people who are struggling. We gather these letters and deliver them to the relevant organizations. We post our current area of focus on our social media site or share our initiatives by word-of-mouth and people volunteer to write letters. We typically receive 100-200 letters for each campaign.

The letters are not specific to a person. They are general positive letters intended to uplift them and help them see that this will pass, and they’ll come out more resilient on the other side. I read the letters to make sure they don’t say anything personal or off-topic and send them to the relevant organizations who distribute them. When we started some of our letters were physical letters but now they are mostly digital.

So far, Letters of Gold has reached over 3,000 people worldwide. We’ve delivered encouraging letters to organizations that support domestic violence survivors, hospital patients in Rwanda, first responders and healthcare workers, teachers, cancer patients, seniors and more. One of our recent initiatives is to support girls who code and girls in STEM, who often face an uphill battle and gender biases in these fields.

We have developed partnerships and club chapters in the United States, Kenya, Germany and India, mostly in high schools.

I have also led book drives such as the one that delivered over 900 books to Pakistani children and underfunded Dallas/Fort Worth libraries, a Christmas toy drive in Plano, and I’m in the process of planning a local school supply drive in Plano.

What inspired you to get started with this initiative?

I love getting letters. I collect every letter and card I’ve ever received. They’re one of the most accessible ways to help uplift others.

In April 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, I spent much of my time lying in bed all day not doing anything. As you can imagine, this got old. I felt like I needed to do something for my community because so many people were struggling with mental health during the lockdowns. In the middle of the night, around 1:00 a.m., I texted a friend and by 2:00 a.m. that same night, we had founded Letters of Gold. I was 15 at the time. We came up with the concept of collecting letters through an accessible website. It started small but it has blossomed into something huge.

What are your long-term plans or goals for Letters of Gold?

We want to expand the organization. We are able to collect letters in such an accessible way. People visit our website, they see the area of need we’re focusing on that month, and they can write letters of encouragement. It’s an easy thing to do, and we want even more people to be involved. We also want to focus more on fundraising and drives. We’ve spread internationally and I’d love to expand into developing countries.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I love seeing people smile, knowing I’ve encouraged them. It’s rewarding to hear them tell me that they’re grateful for the letters we sent to them. When people receive letters, we never expect a thank you. For us it’s not about recognition or any type of extrinsic reward. I was recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives for my work. I’ve been featured on multiple news stations. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because it feels good to lift someone up.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I’ve learned a lot about leadership, how to inspire others and how a small project can impact so many lives. Our Board of Directors, which is now seven other high school students, helps us organize with social media, organizing, outreach to partner organizations, brainstorming ideas, and coming up with new areas where we could help.

Iris, right, delivers encouraging letters to a children’s clinic with co-founder Vedha Vaddaraju. /Courtesy Iris Lai

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

We will be holding a school supply drive soon in Plano. A lot of things are in the works; we have a lot of topic-related Public Service Announcements coming. For example, this month we support and encourage girls and women in STEM. We also hope to collaborate with a different organization that supports refugees. We will be doing a fundraiser event for them. We will also have a table at the Family Kindness Festival organized by Senders Pediatrics in Cleveland.

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

It’s important to have or develop the drive to do something positive. People don’t realize how many people they can affect through volunteering and what a difference even small actions can make.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

If you think you want to help in any area, just know that every bit of help actually has a big impact on the community. If you feel inspired, start local. Look into local volunteer organizations, do community service with people you know and help your neighbors and friends whenever you can. You can also hop on our website and write letters to people who need encouragement. Who knows where this could lead you?

What do you want people to learn from your story?

I want people to know that even a small action can have a big reach. You can inspire people. You can live by the saying that actions speak louder than words, but of course in our case, there’s also immense power in words. I also want to say that if you put your mind to it, you can do it.

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


Jarmila Gorman