Saturday, January 30, 2010

It's tax time!

Today is January 30th. Yesterday was the Earned Income Tax Credit day, and in just a couple more days tax-payers will have received all of their tax forms necessary to file their 2009 state and federal taxes.

That means tax season has finally arrived (and my life is getting a lot more hectic!)

As people get their tax forms, they are calling in to Shared Harvest wanting to file their taxes RIGHT THIS SECOND! And I can't blame them--I'm ready to get my refund, too.

However, if you live in Butler County, earn less than $57,000, and would like to file for free, we ask that you patiently wait until February 13th for our free tax clinic at Shared Harvest! We will have 5-6 trained counselors on hand that day, ready to assist you in filing your taxes and claiming an array of tax credits available to you. And, as always, you keep 100% of your refund when you use the Ohio Benefit Bank to file taxes!

We are now scheduling appointments for February 13, 2010, 9:00a-2:00p.

Of course, we're still seeing clients before that day, as well. And if you have access to a computer, you might also consider utilizing the self-serve option on the OBB's website. The software is free and easy to use--and you can file your taxes without even leaving your jammies!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sick days

Wow, it sure has been a while, eh? A week and a half has passed since my last post. That's totally inexcusable. But of course I have some excuses anyway.

Last Thursday night I was totally ready to write a blog post about whatever was going on back then--something along the line of taxes or benefits or something. But then I started feeling kind of sleepy and queasy and I decided it was bed time.

My body did not agree. I was up all night getting sick in all kinds of ways. When Taylor woke up at 3:40 A.M. the next morning, he found a big mess in our little bathroom and one very sick fiancee in bed. Besides a bottle of Tylenol, we had nothing on hand in our apartment to ease my symptoms. Taylor called in to his dispatchers and arranged to go in two hours later so that he could get me taken care of. Around 4:15 A.M. he left for Meijer to pick up a big bottle of pepto bismol, a few gallons of gatorade, and other assorted supplies, then came back to clean the bathroom before rushing off to work.

I spent the next 14 hours asleep with the occasional waking moment to sip on gatorade and pepto.

When Taylor returned that night, he found me exactly where he left me and resumed care. He is an EMT, after all, and I can personally attest to his "bedside manner," if that's something EMTs can have like their doctor/nurse counterparts.

Saturday was more of the same, but it seemed I was doing better.

Then Sunday came and disaster struck. Taylor came down with whatever I had been fighting all weekend, and he was out of commission. We had previously scheduled engagements to attend (read: appointment with our officiant and bridal shower in Urbana), not to mention a growing pile of laundry and dishes to attend to. But that all had to wait. Between the two of us, we drained an entire bottle of pepto and cleaned out our supply of chicken noodle soup. It was the sick caring for the sick--we were quite a pair.

On Monday morning I still had a slight fever so I stayed home from work so as not to infect my coworkers. Besides, I knew I could use one more day of rest before getting back to the grindstone and I was even feeling well enough to take care of Taylor for a change.

But Taylor didn't stay home. He got up at 3:40 Monday morning and went to work.

Did Taylor feel better? He says he did (and he didn't have a fever), but if you ask me, he could have used another day of rest. So why didn't he stay home?

Because he doesn't get paid sick days. In fact, he doesn't get any paid days off. Had Taylor taken a day off to take care of himself, he would have sacrificed 13 hours of pay, or one third of his weekly pay check. It was bad enough he missed two hours last week unpaid, not to mention the cost of all of those "sick supplies," that he couldn't rationalize missing an entire day for an upset tummy.

I am lucky that AmeriCorps gives me 10 paid sick days and 10 paid personal days over the course of my term. I am lucky that I have health insurance to cover prescriptions and doctor visits. But the average person in poverty doesn't have these luxuries. They most likely don't have coverage, but even if they do, they can't afford to take off work for an illness, or a family member's illness.

Health care is a big issue in American politics right now. And it should be. But Congress can't let politics get in the way of passing quality legislation on behalf of America's workers. In addition to a gap in health care coverage, we need to look at employee policies in America's businesses. Many low income workers get no sick days, no break to recoup, and no time to care for sick family members. If they miss work, they risk not being able to pay their bills or even losing their job all together. So in addition to health care coverage, we need to make sure workers can take time to actually USE that health care coverage and still be able to afford their electricity that month.

Congress had better get busy!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kaitlyn Baker, at your service

The MLK Jr. Day of Service has come and gone, and it was probably the best day of service in the history of the world!

Okay, maybe not, but we had a great time.

Shortly after arriving at Shared Harvest at 7:30 yesterday morning, we took off for the Animal Friends Humane Society in Hamilton. We arrived right on time at 8 A.M. and immediately got to work. Because the next animal safety orientation/training was not for another few weeks, we had to steer clear of the kitties and stick to the laundry and dishes.

At first, it wasn't so bad. We folded 2 loads of clean towels and blankets from the big industrial-sized dryer and even moved over a load from the washer. But the real fun began when we started loading the washer with the dirty towels and blankets. And by dirty I mean pee-, poop-, and hair-covered. Fortunately we had latex gloves, but Alex and I were convinced that the smell stayed on us the rest of the day. By that point there was nothing else to do but wait for the laundry to finish, so we ventured on to our next task.

The laundry room at the animal shelter. All things considered, we made a pretty good dent in the heaps of towels and blankets!

Our next task--washing dishes--was considerably cleaner. Alex scrubbed the crusty dog and kitty food from the bowls in a large sink, and I loaded and emptied the bowls in a big dishwasher. I could fit 5 bowls in a flat at a time and it took about 45 seconds for the dishwasher to do a complete cycle, so we were able to get through quite a few bowls! All in all, this wasn't my favorite project (who really enjoys cleaning up after animals?) but we know that our service allowed for the shelter's employees and volunteers to focus on caring for the animals. Besides, somebody has to do the dirty work!

We stayed at the shelter for about an hour and a half before it was time to move on. Our next stop was the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Southeast Hamilton for an MLK Jr. Day march! We arrived around 9:45 A.M., expecting the march to begin at 10 A.M. as advertised in the Hamilton Journal-News. However, the march did not actually begin until about 10:45 A.M., so we spent a good hour sipping tea and relaxing in the warmth. Finally someone decided it was time to go, so we made our way outside and assembled in the street.

People gathered outside of the Booker T. Washington Center for a peaceful march to commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our route took us up Front Street to High St., east on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., south on Pershing, and finally west on Second St. In other words, we marched about 2.5 miles in the street! We had police escorts the entire way, and as we marched, people sang songs, talked with one another, and waved at passersby. My favorite part about the march was that there were so many different people present, each sharing in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of civil rights and social justice for all people. Our country still has a long way to go in achieving true equality for everyone, but it's days like this that I know we're headed in the right direction.

Marching down High St. on MLK, Jr. Day!

The march concluded with services at the Christ Temple Church of God in Christ on 2nd St., but Alex and I had to keep moving if we wanted to get in a full day of service! We had a quick lunch, then stopped at the Walgreens on Dixie Highway to pick up a few last minute donations for the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter! The store manager gave us a gift card and we were able to pick out some items from the wishlist with the money. Oh and did I mention how awesome the students at Miami University in Hamilton are? They helped us out by collecting boxes of toiletry items for the care packages as well! Thanks so much for all of your help, everyone!

Our next stop was up to the Atrium Hospital in Middletown. Martha was in a pretty serious car accident last week and was going to have surgery on her back. We have been thinking about her quite a bit, and we decided what better day to visit her than on the Day of Service! Alex and I stopped at a Kroger store to buy some flowers, a card, and a vase, which we hoped would bring a little cheer to her day.

However, when we arrived, we found that Martha was in surgery, so we weren't able to visit with her. We left the flowers with her mom who was waiting outside of the OR and went on our way. Feel better, Martha!

At that point, we drove on down to Cincinnati to pack up the donations for the Battered Women's Shelter. We were a little early so we grabbed a cup of tea at Panera before arriving at a woman named Barb's house. About ten other volunteers gathered, each bringing boxes and bags of donated items. We chowed down on some snacks, then sorted all of the items into piles by category. We formed an assembly line of sorts, and then packed one item from each category into paper bags. I'm not sure how many bags we ended up with, but here are some pictures:

Sorting the items was half the battle! We had a ton of soap, toothpaste, and lotion, among other necessary items.

This is Liz--she organized this whole thing!

Everyone was so excited to help! The assembly line hard at work.

These ladies are awesome!

All in all, the Battered Women's Shelter project was my favorite part of the day. We found the project on, I believe, and it sounded cool so we signed up. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but to our pleasant surprise, everyone was warm, inviting, and inclusive.

It was really fun to get involved in other projects in the community! We spend so much time focusing on our day to day duties with the Benefit Bank and the foodbank (and understandably so!) so it was nice to put our attention to other worthy service projects and endeavors yesterday. I only have about 5 months left as a VISTA, and I'm starting to realize just how many interests I have to explore when I'm finished! Although I don't know where I will end up, one thing is certain--I love serving in my community, no matter what the project entails.

Friday, January 15, 2010


This was a very OBB-intensive week for me.

On Monday I prepared for my 3 trainings this week (and our MLK Jr. Day of Service projects).
On Tuesday I was in Eaton for a tax training.
On Wednesday I was in Xenia for a benefits training.
On Thursday I took the day off (mostly)!
On Friday I was in Dayton for a tax training.

And now it's the weekend! No more early morning driving, no more log-in name/password combinations, no more Qualifying Widow(er) with a Dependent Child filing status explanations.

Don't get me wrong, I love what I do, but this week was the perfect reminder of why I decided to abandon my education major for something else.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

The blog advantage

Last week I had an awesome experience that I haven't had time to write about until now.

But first a little background.

If you recall, at the beginning of my term I shared a great deal about my experiences with Job and Family Services in getting and keeping our food stamp benefit (click for a reminder of these accounts). I was honest and open about our experience, but also critical of the process. For many readers, my story was their first encounter with how the food stamp process really works. For others it provided a reminder of how much impact social service providers and government programs have on the lives of people in poverty, and how that impact isn't always a positive one.

Jerome Kearns is a reader who fit into the latter category. A board member at Shared Harvest, he received the link to my blog from Tina back in July. (She sent it to all of the board members.) Oh and did I mention Jerome is also the director of the Butler County Department of Job and Family Services? Keep in mind, I had met a few of the board members already, but I didn't realize that Jerome Kearns was a board member as well--and maybe that's a good thing. Over the past several months, I have written candidly about my experiences and Jerome, among others, has paid attention.

Now, fast forward a few months to late December. As the Checkout Hunger Campaign and Holiday Food Drives were coming to a close, I approached Tina about my next non-OBB project: the Butler County school supply campaign. She put me in touch with Jeff Diver from SELF who eventually led me to Jerome Kearns; both men have been involved in the school supply campaign in the past. I set up a meeting with both of them for Friday, January 8th, and while arranging my meeting with Jerome, he mentioned my blog and that he'd like to talk about some of my JFS posts from last fall.

And that takes us to last week. Besides getting more details about the school supply campaign, I also had the chance to personally tell the director of our county JFS about my experience in his office. For about an hour and a half, we talked about how Taylor and I felt during our application and re-certification processes, and the things we thought could be improved. Jerome agreed that some of their caseworkers' customer service skills left something to be desired and that they could work on they way they treat people during the intake process. Never once did Jerome offer excuses or argue with me about my experience. He asked questions and genuinely listened to my answers.

Although Taylor and I are no longer eligible to receive food stamps, it felt good to have our experiences heard. I recognize that as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member on both sides of the social service desk, I am in a unique position of influence that many people in poverty will never have a chance to experience. Without my blog or my connections to Tina and Shared Harvest, I would have never had the opportunity to sit down with the director of JFS and tell him about my experience. Had I just been a regular consumer, my voice would likely never have been heard.

I hope that my discussion with Jerome will mean something, that it will lead to changes in the way services are provided at Job and Family Services. I hope that other families will not experience the frustration and humiliation that Taylor and I experienced at the beginning of our journey; I hope that people will not feel discouraged from seeking the help that is available to them. Only time will tell. In the meantime I am learning that I can make a difference in the fight against poverty not just by working on projects, but also by speaking up about issues that I have personal experience with.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A "Day On" in Service

Faithful blog-readers, I need your help!

As you may know, AmeriCorps*VISTA members make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a "day on" not a "day off." That means that instead of taking the usual holiday to sit around and hang out, we spend our time as a day of service to our community (just like every other day of the year).

While Alex and I technically don't get Martin Luther King Jr. Day off from Shared Harvest, we are still getting in on the National Day of Service by participating in 3 different service projects throughout the day. We plan to volunteer at a local food pantry (project pending), a local animal shelter (project pending), and helping out the YWCA battered women's shelter. This third project was originally supposed to just be about packing up toiletry items and other assorted necessities for women and children living in the shelter. But then somewhere between finding the project online and signing up to help, we were roped in to actually collecting the items for the care packages.

How are we supposed to do that?

Well, we started at area businesses, mostly in Forest Park (because this shelter is in Cincinnati), asking for donations from the list. To put it simply, we haven't had much luck. After an entire afternoon of driving around and begging managers to help out (with official letterhead, I might add!), we only have $25 worth of office supplies from Office Depot. We're following up with some store managers who at least raised their eyebrows at us later this week, but in the meantime....


Here is a list of things that the women at the shelter said they would really like to have. Check it out:

Office/School Supplies:
  • Blue and black ink pens
  • Dry erase markers
  • Folders-2 pocket
  • Rolls of postage stamps
Children's items:
  • Baby bottles
  • Baby monitors
  • Baby play pens/Port-a-cribs
  • Baby wipes
  • Diapers (all sizes)
Women's clothing:
  • Underwear sizes 5-10
Household items:
  • Blankets (all sizes)
  • Paper cups
  • Pillow cases
  • Pillows
  • Sheet Sets (all sizes)
  • Towels (all sizes)
Cleaning Supplies:
  • Air freshner
  • Carpet freshner
  • Clorox disinfectant wipes
  • Dish detergent
  • Disinfectant spray
  • Liquid laundry detergent
  • Paper towels
  • Pine Sol cleaner
  • Trash bags, small and large
  • Zip lock bags, sandwich & gallon size
Personal Hygiene items:
  • Bar soap
  • Body lotion
  • Body wash/shower gel
  • Cotton balls
  • Female sanitary items
  • Hair accessories
  • Hair products (ethnic)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Latex gloves
Miscellaneous items:
  • Alarm clocks
  • Batteries (all sizes)
  • Fast food restaurant gift cards
  • Gas gift cards
  • Phone calling cards ($5)
  • Movie passes
  • Target/Walmart/Kroger gift cards
If you live in the Greater Cincinnati area and would like to get involved, please consider donating some of the above items. Just shoot me an email at and I'll even come pick up your donation (as long as you live in the Greater Cincinnati area!) And if you live outside of the area and would like to help, still shoot me an email and we'll figure something out. Keep in mind that we can stretch your cash donation pretty far to purchase supplies, as well.

I hope you'll consider supporting survivors of domestic violence!

And start thinking about how you'll personally make MLK Jr. Day 2010 a "day on" in service!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Someone's been Krogering...

The Check Out Hunger campaign has officially ended and according to my calculations from our weekly reports, the donation grand total is:


Thanks to the generous Kroger customers from Oxford to Mason (and 15 other stores in between) we were able to collect more money than ever before in the history of the COH campaign. (We raised $12,696.00 in 2008, $13,428.00 in 2007, and $9,267.00 in 2006.)

And if that isn't amazing enough, remember that Shared Harvest can stretch $1 into 8 meals, meaning these donations will provide roughly 145,752 meals to the local community, give or take a few meals.

Great job, Kroger customers! Thank you so much!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Exciting times!

The start of a new year has brought lots of excitement to Shared Harvest! Monday marked the kick off of the "Fill that Bus!" food drive in the Hamilton City School District. It took nearly all day, but Alex and I delivered 17 barrels and 400 boxes to all of the schools and education offices in the district. I believe this is the first district-wide food drive that's been done with Shared Harvest, and we can't wait to see how much is collected. This will definitely help re-stock the shelves at our partner agencies after the holidays.

On Tuesday we did a few final snowy food drive pick ups at Totes International, Greentree Health Science Academy, Wildwood Elementary, and Northrop Grumman. I was looking back at the past few months, and I did a little number crunching. Between October and December, I picked up 28,412 pounds of food with either Alex, Holli, Mary, Joe, or even Taylor, at about 65 different locations! And with each pound of food valued at $1, that equals $28,412!

Many other locations donated food during the 2009 holiday season, as well. All in all, Holli informed me that the 2009 Holiday Aid Food Drive brought in a total of 49,510 pounds of food, which is 7,350 pounds more than during the 2008 holiday season.

Alex and I would like to think we had something to do with the increase in donations this year, but we know that the real reason for the increase was the tremendous generosity of the community. Thank you to all of the area businesses, schools, and churches who worked so hard to collect so much food! We are so appreciative for your support, and we hope you will hold many more food drives with Shared Harvest in the future, including outside of the holiday season.

As I mentioned near the top of the post, these were our final food drive pick ups for the season. This fact brings mixed emotions to our office. On the one hand, we are relieved to be finished with all of the heavy lifting, but we'll certainly miss our adventures with Gus. Like it or not, the holiday food drive is over and tax season is here, so it was time to say good bye to our little bus friend. Check out our final picture with Gus on Alex's blog.

Wednesday had its fair share of excitement, as well. The CheckOut Hunger drive officially ended last week, so it was time to collect the coupon placards and get them ready for next year. Part of the job included removing adhesive from the placards so that they are ready for next year's set of coupons to be attached. We constructed an adhesive removal tool out of a razor blade and duct tape, but clumsy me, I used the tool to slice open my thumb instead of taking off the adhesive! Alex took me to Urgent Care where I received nine stitches and a tetanus shot. It was a pretty minor incident, though my thumb still stings a little and the tetanus shot has made my arm feel like it's full of lead! With the impending snow fall today, I decided to take a few hours off this afternoon to relax at home. Hopefully I'll feel back to my normal self tomorrow, stitches and all!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Nothing but Food Stamps

Remember a few months ago when The New York Times reporter Jason DeParle visited us in Southwest Ohio to do a story on food stamps? Over the weekend, The Times ran the next installment of his series on food stamp usage in the U.S. This time he reported from Florida and focused on a growing population relying on food stamps as their only source of income--no disability checks, no unemployment, no cash assistance or 'welfare'--just food stamps.

But this isn't just an issue in Florida. The New York Times collected food stamp data from 31 states and found that all had experienced a rise in the number of people relying on food stamps as their only source of income. According to the article, 314,200 Ohioans were receiving food stamps as their only income, which is up 37% from 2007.

Keep in mind, food stamps are a work support program, meaning you have to work to earn the benefit. But when there is no work to be had, people can volunteer at various local agencies or enroll in job training classes to satisfy the requirement. At least, that's how it works in Ohio.

You might be wondering how someone could survive with no cash income other than a few hundred dollars a month in food stamps. DeParle explores this trend and tells the stories of a few families and individuals who have managed to get by with what they have, which happens to be food stamps. It's definitely worth a look.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Seat belts, everyone!"

It's been nearly a week since my last post! Time to remedy this.

Last Tuesday was markedly better than Monday. With the windows in our trucks replaced, I was ready to do some serious food-driving. Somehow I managed to do 3 of the food drive pick ups from barrels in area Kroger stores on Monday in my little Oldsmobile, but we were still behind.

With Alex and Holli out of the office, and the warehouse busy with end of the month inventory, I wasn't too sure who would accompany me on my food drive pick ups that day. To my pleasant surprise, though, Taylor didn't have class on Tuesday, and he offered to volunteer with the food drive that day! So we loaded up Gus with two empty pallets, a cart, and a bunch of boxes and hit the road.

Together we were able to accomplish quite a bit! I handled all of the driving (while Taylor whistled the theme song from "The Magic School Bus"), and Taylor did all the heavy lifting. He could lift a full barrel into the truck all by himself! We ended up bringing more than 650 pounds of food back to Shared Harvest from an assortment of places, including: the Beach Water Park, Greater Harvest Church, CSL Plasma, YMCA of Middletown, Verso Paper Co., just to name a few.

I had a great time working with Taylor. It was fun for him to see a little of what I do everyday, and it's always great to share community service projects with others. I've never been one for new year's resolutions, but maybe as we enter this new decade, one of mine might be to spend more time with Taylor giving back to the community. With our schedules, we don't get to see each other too much, so the time we do have together should be spent meaningfully, not in front of the TV! Perhaps we can figure out a way to volunteer together on our off days.

Meet Taylor! Unfortunately, my camera wasn't working on Tuesday, but this picture captures the spirit of the day--brrr!

Meanwhile, I'll have a busy week wrapping up holiday food drives and the Check Out Hunger campaign, as well as starting a new project surrounding school supplies for kids in Butler County. Oh and did I mention, it's now officially tax season? Let the chaos begin!

In this my 100th post, I'd like to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Good things are coming in 2010.