Friday, February 26, 2010

A new blog for you

I am a daily reader of Get Rich Slowly, a person finance blog for people looking for a few tips on debt management, savings, and investments. In a recent post on planning ahead financially, I came across a new blog called, The Boxcarkids's Blog. If you haven't already seen the new link under the "Check out these blogs too" list on the right hand side of my blog, I strongly suggest that you check it out ASAP. The author writes about her day to day struggle of being a single parent of four and homeless. And oh yeah--she has her Master's degree in Anthropology, owned her own home, and even had a rental property before the housing market collapse and subsequent recession. She provides great insight into the story of thousands of Americans right now--people who have lost their jobs and their homes to foreclosure and are considered homeless. Some are crashing with families and friends, some are in campgrounds, some are in tent cities, some are in shelters, and some are on the streets.

This blog serves as a poignant reminder that poverty and homelessness don't just happen to alcoholics, drug-dealers, and addicts. I find that's a common misconception people have in this field. The truth is, poverty can affect anyone. In fact, many middle class families are just a few paychecks away from a situation very similar to that of the family from The Boxcarkids's Blog.

The faces of homelessness, unemployment, and poverty are shifting with the current recession. People are outraged that the government/financial institutions/charities/etc. aren't doing enough for the newly poor. "Somebody should do something!" they say. "Bad things are happening to good, hard-working people."

When the job and housing market bounce back, will people still feel such a strong sense of outrage about people living in poverty? Before the recession, millions of men, women, and children were living in generational poverty (that is, they were at least the third generation of their family to live in poverty), and not many people even batted an eyelash. These individuals and families will most likely continue to live in poverty when the economy comes back. And I wonder: what will we say then? Will we still be outraged that children go to bed hungry? I hope so. Anger is a strong motivator for change.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The most important meal of...your life?

As I mentioned earlier, Alex and I attended the monthly Food Assistance Program Outreach Meeting in Dayton on Tuesday. Yesterday I wrote about community gardens, but now I'd like to shift focus to another topic from that meeting: school breakfast.

Most everyone is familiar in one way or another with the USDA Child Nutrition Program a.k.a. "Free or Reduced School Lunch." But identifying this program as the latter, more popular title may be a misnomer. If a child qualifies for the USDA Child Nutrition Program, they qualify for free or reduced price school meals, not just lunch. Some schools offer breakfasts and snacks throughout the day, too. So if the child qualifies for "free lunch" then he qualifies for free breakfast and free snack, as well.

Of course, that's only if the school offers additional food options throughout the day. Many schools do not serve breakfast, and if they do, families may not be able to take advantage of it. Think about it--even if the school offers breakfast, you would have to arrive at school about twenty minutes earlier than usual so that the child could have enough time to eat breakfast. I don't know about you, but when I was growing up, it was hard enough to get moving on time in the morning, let alone any earlier. But let's say that you have a family of early-risers and that your school offers a breakfast program. Even if you can wake up and get out the door half an hour earlier, the school breakfast program can be stigmatizing for children. Not everyone participates in the breakfast program, so the children who do are often isolated in the cafeteria. And although any child can participate in the breakfast program by purchasing the meal outright (meaning, their family's income is above federal limits and does not qualify for free or reduced price breakfast), most children whose families can afford to buy breakfast don't participate in the program--they just eat the food they have at home. So what ends up happening is a small group of low-income students gathers in the cafeteria every morning for their free breakfast--and that can be embarrassing.

Given all of these factors combined, it makes sense that The Children's Hunger Alliance reported 70% of Montgomery County students don't participate in school breakfast, though a majority of those students do participate in school lunch programs. Again, this may be because the school does not offer breakfast, but it may also be because of the added inconvenience of getting to school early to get their meal. Because everyone eats lunch at the same time in the middle of the school day, these challenges do not arise with school lunch programs.

So why don't schools participate in school breakfast programs? The biggest motivator for not doing anything: cost. The USDA provides cash subsidies for schools who offer school breakfast programs. For every free breakfast served, the school receives $1.46 for the cost of the meal. For every reduced price breakfast served, the school receives $1.16 (and the school may not charge the student more than $.30 for the meal). For every full price breakfast served, the school receives $.26 from the USDA, and the school may set any price for the meal, though they must operate as a non-profit program (so no $5 school breakfasts for students paying full price!) Sounds like a good deal, but many schools don't want to mess with the costs of purchasing, shipping, preparing, and administering those breakfasts.

Now, the ironic thing about that is that many schools who find reasons not to participate in school breakfast programs throughout the year WILL offer a breakfast program during test weeks. Schools recognize that children behave better and perform better academically when they are well-fed. Go figure! It all goes back to basic psychology, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Of course, it doesn't take a psychologist to tell you that. Do I get snappy right before lunch? Yes. Am I as productive right before lunch? No. Why? Because one of my basic needs hasn't been met--I'm hungry!

So yes, when the school's academic rating is on the line, then and only then will we feed the children. Every other day we will let their poor little tummies growl and act surprised when half of the class is throwing paper airplanes instead of learning their times tables.

It seems obvious to me that the solution here is for schools to offer a breakfast program, but how to do it? As I mentioned earlier, there are challenges to requiring students who want to participate in school breakfast programs to arrive early in the school day. We discussed at our Food Assistance Program Outreach Meeting how school breakfast should be incorporated into the regular school day, as school lunch is now. Every student in their homeroom (the first class of the day) would receive the meal together. Students whose families can afford the meal can purchase it as normal, and students whose families' income is below federal standards can receive it at a reduced price or free, just like at lunch time. That kind of model eliminates extra hoops at the beginning of the day for already frenzied parents, and levels the playing field for all students, thus reducing the stigma of eating alone in the cafeteria. By incorporating school breakfast into the day as school lunch is, we'll see a more inclusive environment and more overall productivity throughout the school day.

Next, we need to get over cost. By providing the "most important meal of the day" to all children, we can save resources (time and money) in other areas throughout the day, as children will be able to focus and learn and thrive from the beginning. After all, isn't that the point of school? It may not seem like much, but providing a meal at the beginning of the day has been shown to improve students' behavior, grades, test scores, and overall academic success. So who knows? Maybe because of early academic successes, that child won't drop out after the 9th grade. Maybe she'll graduate high school, go to vocational school or college, get a job, and become a productive member of society--all because of a little cereal and fruit back in second grade.

Maybe I'm getting carried away with this, but then again, maybe I'm not. I'm thinking Maslow was on to something.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Let your garden grow

There's only 24 days until the first day of spring (and my wedding!), and even though there's snow in the forecast for the next four days, I imagine many of you are already thinking about your gardens. I'm no garden expert (I won't even pretend to be), so I won't offer any advice on when to start planting or gardening techniques, but I will offer some general insight about gardens, particularly community gardens, that I have gleaned from others more knowledgeable than myself.

Yesterday, Alex and I went to the Food Assistance Program Outreach Coalition Meeting in Dayton. Although community gardening wasn't the focus of this month's meeting (it was actually the focus of last month's meeting), our continued discussion yesterday got me thinking more about the topic in general.

It would be easy to assume that gardens are the answers to low-income hunger problems: we give you the seeds, you grow the food, and then you eat it. Voila! Problem solved. But of course it isn't that simple. People with low-incomes often work multiple part-time (or full-time, let's face it) jobs just to keep up with the bills. They don't have a lot of extra time lying around to cultivate a lush, bountiful garden of their own. Also, people's thumbs are not naturally green. In other words, they may not have the skills to grow their own food. I know people who work long and hard in their gardens but still have a puny pea crop by the end of the season. And even if you manage to grow some decent food, what do you do with it? Many households (low-income or not) don't necessarily have experience cooking with fresh produce or even identifying it. I've heard so many stories of school-age children who have held fresh fruit or vegetables for the first time and not known their names or how they taste. Why? Fresh food is the most expensive in the grocery store; a family can get a lot more calorie bang for their buck by sticking to cheaper shelf-stable food. It makes sense that a family short on time and cash may not have an extensive repertoire of recipes using fresh, healthy (read: costly) ingredients.

That's why community garden initiatives are so great. They don't just throw a bunch of seeds at a family and say, "Here! Good luck!" They actually take the opportunity to teach people how to manage a garden, how to plant and grow, how to harvest and cook the food. They provide tools to manage the land. They teach people about nutrition by showing healthy options for mealtime. They provide a place where people can work together and share the load to accomplish a common goal. Perhaps most importantly, they empower people to take ownership of their food and health.

Here are some additional benefits to a community/neighborhood garden that I picked up from the Butler County OSU Extension's website:

Health Benefits of a Community/Neighborhood Garden:

  • Community gardeners consume more fresh vegetables and less sweet food and drinks compared with non-gardeners.
  • Children who participate in gardening are more likely to incorporate vegetables in their diet than their peers.
  • Gardeners save an estimated $250 per season on food by eating produce from their gardens.

Building Community:

  • Gardening gives people from from different cultures and socio-economic groups the opportunity to interact and facilitates improve social networks between neighbors.
  • Having a community garden in the neighborhood improves the attitudes of residents towards their community, teaches leadership skills and raised organizational capacity in the communities where they are located.
  • Community garden may lead to other maintenance issues in the neighborhood being addressed, a greater sense of responsibility for shared public places and the development of other neighborhood activities such as crime watches, tree plantings, and beautification projects.
Community gardens are becoming more and more popular. Of course, in Wilmington there's the Grow Food, Grow Hope initiative at Wilmington College. The Dayton Metroparks have an extensive community gardening project, and the OSU Extension of Butler County is actively helping community gardeners in Middletown (and soon to be Hamilton) to grow their own gardens.

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in community gardening, but maybe you already have a garden at home that keeps you busy. That's great! There are still ways to stay involved in your community from home. One way to make a difference is to add an extra row to your garden that you will designate as "community food." When it's time to harvest, you can take food from this row to your local food pantry or food bank for immediate distribution, giving many more low-income families access to fresh, quality produce. Overwhelmed by your thriving zucchini crop? Can't eat another tomato? Don't let that produce go to waste--donate it to a food pantry so that others can enjoy the tastes of your garden.

Happy planting!

Monday, February 22, 2010

It's always better when we're together

Alex and I recently found "our song:" Jack Johnson's "It's Always Better When We're Together."

And today was further evidence that my life is better when I'm with Alex.

We were scheduled today to do a training for a group of about 25 counselors from an area agency, who shall remain nameless. Because the group was so large, Alex and I decided to teach the class together. We used this system last Friday for a large class that I had, and we found that it worked well. Having an extra pair of eyes, ears, and hands makes our big classes go much smoother, especially with all of the hands-on computer-based stuff in the training.

Additionally, we collaborated with the agency to set up a private class just for them. We normally don't do that, but with so many people needing training at a time, we agreed to work with the group so their counselors could be out of the office at one time and so that they wouldn't soak up all of the seats at our other area trainings. The agency made arrangements for the class to be held at a site we had never used for training, and insisted everyone would bring their own laptop and connect to the site's wireless Internet for the day.

That was the idea, anyway. Not everyone brought a laptop, and the wireless was in and out all day. Some people spent half an hour just trying to stay logged in to the program, let alone actually practice using it. Everyone was frustrated with the flaky Internet connection, and it just affirmed to us that in the future we should stick to our own tried and true training sites and training method. We tried to be as flexible as possible to accommodate this agency, but it just wasn't working out.

And sadly, the technology issue wasn't our biggest problem today. Because all of the counselors knew each other already, they felt very comfortable at the training. A little too comfortable. They talked over Alex, didn't listen to instructions, and basically did their own thing. They were in and out of the class constantly, they were checking email (when the Internet wasn't failing), and made up their own scenarios instead of doing the scenarios assigned for training. Almost everyone was inattentive, unruly, and just plain rude.

Given the general behavior of the class and the challenges with the wireless, we called our stand in regional coordinator, Jessica May, for some advice. Together we decided that we needed to stop training for now and reschedule the second half of the training at a time and place when we could effectively regroup and get through the class. I pulled the site administrator out of the class, we talked about the situation, and agreed to get back in touch to finish the training. They seemed to understand the reasoning behind the decision to call the class, but it didn't make the situation any easier to resolve.

Nonetheless, Alex and I handled the situation, and we're proud of ourselves for putting an end to that madness. This training put a big wrinkle in our day and our mood, and we're basically still reeling from the morning. What a disappointing, unproductive, and downright hurtful way to spend the day. We're not sure if our treatment was due to the fact that we're young and female, but it doesn't matter--we deserve to be treated with professionalism and respect. Hopefully the story will be different the next time we see this class to finish training.

To be continued...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reunion at the Tax Clinic

The lady VISTAs of the Freestore Foodbank and Shared Harvest Foodbank teamed up to provide a free tax clinic at the Manna Outreach, Inc. Emergency Food Pantry in Price Hill (that's western Cincinnati, if you're not familiar with the area). The clinic lasted from 10a-1p, and despite a growing line outside of the food pantry, we only had one client at the start of the clinic.

But Michelle brought bagels and drinks, and it was fun to catch up with our Cincinnati counterparts throughout the morning. I think the last time I saw Michelle was for our holiday photo in early December or maybe our CT Tax Training; the last time I saw Brooke was at our VISTA regional meeting several months ago. It's nice to get together and share our common VISTA experiences. Solidarity, baby.

In the upcoming months, we should get together for non-work related activities. Perhaps a field day of kite-flying, paddle boating, and picnicking is in order? Yes, I'd say so. Consider it "networking."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kits for Kids Kick Off

I'm hard at work researching grants and finding funds for the Butler County School Supply Coalition. This coalition is composed of key individuals from around the county, and aims to provide a school supply kit to every child in Butler County on free and reduced lunch. The project covers children in all 10 public school districts, including: Lakota, Fairfield, Hamilton, Ross, Madison, Middletown, Edgewood, Monroe, New Miami, and Talawanda.

Scratch that--the coalition really covers every district but Talawanda, because for the past several years, Talawanda has managed to raise enough money to buy enough kits for all of the kids in their district without using any county money. What's their secret? I'm journeying to Oxford later today to meet with Maureen Kranbuhl, Director of Oxford United Way, to find out. It's our hope that we can replicate their efforts in other districts around the county to maximize our funds and increase our buying power. By ordering the kits all together in bulk, we can buy a complete school supply kit for elementary and junior high school students for about $5. You can't beat that!

Despite great efforts in the past, the coalition has never been able to raise enough money to buy enough kits for every child in need. And this year, we're projecting even higher numbers of kids in need due to the recession. I just heard on the news that 75% of the students in the Middletown City School District are on free or reduced lunch. That's a lot of kids, and we know that other districts are seeing similar numbers. It will take some organizing, some persuading, some grant-writing, and quite a few meetings with key players to get everything together, but I really think we can raise a significant chunk of money this year.

Want to get involved? For $5 you can provide a student in Butler County with the supplies he or she needs to start the 2010-2011 school year. Because this project is the collaborative effort of a coalition, none of your donation goes to overhead. Yep--100% of your donation goes to purchase much-needed school supply kits.

Think about it--I'll be back to ask again. In the meantime, email me at for more information on the project or to make a donation. I'm happy to help you make a difference!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

They filled that bus--20 buses, to be exact

Last Friday marked the end of the Hamilton City Schools District-wide food drive. It's the first time that an entire school district has come together to do a food drive for Shared Harvest, and it was particularly well-timed. Most organizations like to capitalize on the spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas and conduct their food drives during the holiday season (as Alex and I know very well). But what about the months that follow? Hunger doesn't end with the holidays, and food pantries often have a difficult time keeping their shelves stocked after the new year.

Hamilton City Schools took all of this into account when designing their "Hey Big Blue, Fill That Bus!" food drive. The district-wide drive included 15 district buildings, as well as a few community locations like the YMCA in Hamilton. Alex and I delivered the initial barrel + 25 boxes to each school, office, or community center back in January, and each location easily filled that and more. The goal was for each school to fill a school bus with 88 boxes of food, and five of the schools ended up filling two buses. In fact, one little boy at Ridgeway Elementary in Hamilton collected 2,284 non-perishable food items alone. That's 40 boxes worth of food, or about half a bus, all by himself!

It seems that everyone really got into the food drive, incorporating assemblies and incentives for the kids to collect food and give back to the community. Check out the lengths a group of teachers took at Van Buren Elementary school to rally students to collect more food. I find their show particularly fitting, given the project.

At the end of the food drive, students at the Hamilton Freshman School unloaded the boxes from the convoy of 20 buses that transported the food from each school. Before it was all over, they had filled the semi-truck, the straight truck, and Gus the Bus to their maximum capacity. How much food is that? More than 60,000 pounds of food and personal hygiene items. That's more than the entire 2009 Holiday Aid food drive combined. Check out the photos snapped by Greg Lynch of the Hamilton Journal-News.

We are so impressed by the compassion of the students, faculty, and staff of Hamilton City Schools. I hope that next year other school districts will consider getting involved in a similar effort, maybe even in competition with each other! Who says that rivalries have to originate on the football field or basketball court? They should spring from food drives, too.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tax Clinic Central

Saturday marked our 1st annual tax clinic at Shared Harvest!

Okay, not quite. Shared Harvest has actually attempted to hold a tax clinic for the past 2 years, but both clinics just never quite made it off the ground. The first year a major snow storm foiled the plans, and the second year no one made an appointment, so no one showed up. But this year we were determined to change all of that--and we did.

Shared Harvest's PR person, Bob Long, put together two press releases for the Journal-News. I watched for them everyday for about two weeks, but I don't think they ever made it in the newspaper. Fortunately, Alex and I planned ahead and used other media to advertise our clinic.

We designed a tax clinic flier to post all over Butler County, which Tina forwarded to our partner agencies. The idea was that when clients came to the food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters for help, they could get connected to a free tax service as well. Then, on the edge of the first snow storm to blow through here a little over a week ago, Alex and I drove all over Hamilton, Fairfield, Trenton, and Middletown to hang the fliers in various community locations, such as libraries, post offices, grocery stores, YMCAs, and laundromats. The fliers included our phone number for people to schedule appointments, as well as a line about accepting walk-in clients. The only thing left to do was wait and see what would happen at the clinic.

In the days leading up to the clinic we had about 6 calls from people wanting their taxes done. We scheduled appointments for all of them with one of our 7 tax counselors on hand. Because the Corporation for National and Community Service adamantly discourages direct service among VISTAs, Alex and I didn't schedule any appointments for ourselves. Instead, we focused on managing the clinic. We were prepared to step in to serve an influx of walk-ins if needed, but our primary tasks were to check clients in and answer questions from the counselors.

We felt prepared but we weren't sure what to expect. Tina and the tax counselors gathered at Shared Harvest around 8:30-8:45a Saturday morning to set up for the day. Our clients began to arrive a little before nine, and we were off! Everything ran smoothly all day--we had no technological hiccups and all of the counselors seemed very comfortable assisting their clients in filing their taxes. Gloria, a SNAP Outreach worker here at Shared Harvest, helped a woman get more than $6000 back in her refund! In fact, all of our clients left with smiles on their faces; it seemed everyone was satisfied with the services we provided. As it turned out, we didn't have any walk-in clients, and one person didn't show up for his appointment, but we consider the clinic an overall success!

A BIG THANKS to Gloria, Kate, and Lisa (SNAP Outreach); Anita (Warren County Community Services); and Martha (OASHF) for volunteering their time to help us out this weekend. We couldn't have done it without you!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Road trip!

Alex and I drove to Miami and Darke Counties (our farthest reaching and most rural counties) for a little site recruitment yesterday. But site recruitment is a tad more complicated than just driving around and stopping at random buildings. It's a process.

First we made a list of potential OBB sites from various social service directories. Based on the services they provided (counseling, food assistance, shelter assistance) we thought they would be able to implement the OBB into their agency with ease and success. We had tried cold calling these agencies before the holidays, but no one responds particularly well to an unsolicited call. Even if the OBB is something the agency could really use and enjoy, they didn't give us a chance to explain the program before hurriedly saying "We're not interested" or abruptly hanging up the phone. They thought we were some scammers trying to sell them something! Realizing we were turning more people away from the OBB with this method (while also driving ourselves crazy--hey we aren't salesmen!) we decided to take a break from the calls and try a different strategy.

A couple of weeks ago we drafted a letter to the directors of the agencies on our list to let them know we were planning to visit Darke and Miami counties at some point during the week of February 8th. We listed our contact information and encouraged them to call or email us ahead of time to ask any questions or even to set up a meeting with us before we arrived. We heard from a couple of agencies before even journeying north, which we took as encouragement. The rest of the agencies we would just have to wing it.

But what we didn't count on were the two snow storms that blew through the region this past week, dumping more than a foot of snow on all of us. Not wanting to push our visit any further into tax season, we decided to give it a try.

By Thursday morning we woke up to find the interstates and major roads around here were pretty clear. But in rural Miami County there was still a level 2 snow emergency, and most, if not all, of the school districts had closed for the day. Darke County, on the other hand, was under a level 3 snow emergency and businesses were closed in addition to the schools. Two of the four sites we planned on visiting were closed as early as 7 A.M. Still, we wanted to give it a shot.

I picked up Alex bright and early, then we picked up our materials from Shared Harvest. Fortunately, the plows had made it to our driveway and we were actually able to make it to the top this time. (Wednesday we worked from home due to excessive snow, slush, and ice on the driveway. After watching several vehicles get stuck on the driveway from the road, I turned around and went home.) Armed with brochures, tax signs (for our current agencies), and a stack of "Sorry we missed you" letters (just in case), we hit the road.

We made it to Miami County with very little incident. It was making it in and out of the agencies that presented the most significant problems. The parking lots weren't plowed at all and if we had to park on the street, Alex ended up with cold, wet feet from stepping out of the car into the mound of snow pushed up against the curb. And if parking wasn't eventful enough, most of the agencies hadn't quite dug out yet (see right). Oh well, a small price to pay for new benefit bank sites!

While we didn't have any solid confirmations, it looks like we might end up gaining 2 or 3 new sites from this process. By sitting down face to face with these agencies, we were able to take our time in explaining the program, with visual reinforcements, and answer any questions. It went so much smoother than those dreadful cold calls!

After a quick lunch break (and some yummy queso dip!) we ventured into Darke County. By this point their snow emergency had been downgraded to a level 2, so we made a couple of visits and left our "Sorry we missed you" letters at the rest.

And 10 hours after we left, we found ourselves back in Fairfield, safe and sound.

We VISTAs are like the postal service--rain, sleet, snow, slush, ice, fog--nothing can stop us!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The end of an era

Yesterday Taylor and I spent the last $61.28 on our food stamp card at Kroger. We paid the rest of the grocery bill out of pocket, hence: the end of an era. From now on we'll be buying our groceries with money from our checking account. And I've come to the conclusion that that's a good thing. Keep reading.

For the past 9 months we haven't had to worry about paying for groceries, so our financial situation has significantly improved. When we first moved to Fairfield, we had no source of steady income, no real savings, and a terribly hard time convincing the landlord we really could afford this apartment.

Once we started getting food stamps, things began to turn around. We were able to relax a little bit about being able to afford our bills, and we could buy the food that we wanted and needed for quality, healthy meals guilt-free.

Of course, getting and keeping food stamps wasn't a walk in the park, but it was worth it. Because of our food stamps (and a healthy dose of frugality), Taylor and I have been able to pay all of our bills on time, quickly build up our savings account, and keep our debt to a minimum. We have also managed to keep the savings bonds my family purchased for me in the late '80s and early '90s in tact. (I remember giving the landlord a print out of the bond serial numbers as proof that we could afford rent for a year even if our financial situation didn't improve. Then we begged for them to lease the apartment to us.)

And it's because of all of these factors that Taylor and I are pleased to announce that we are not only back on our feet, but we're doing well. I'm not so nervous about the future anymore. In fact, it's exciting to think about the future! We weathered a difficult time in our lives, and we can do it again if we have to.

Hopefully we won't have to. :)

37 days to go until our wedding.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snow days!

Well, not real snow days. I'm learning that most adults (unless they're teachers) don't get a day off from work, even when 8 inches of snow are forecast to fall. So this is what it is to be a grown up.

What if the county is in a snow emergency, you ask? Well, even if Butler County is on a level three snow emergency, we are expected to report because we are an "emergency service." That's right, emergency services aren't just limited to fire and police. Emergency food also falls under this category.

It's not that bad this morning, and even so, Alex and I would be here anyway. At top right is a view from our office; Dixie Highway is just past the little barns in the background.

While it's easy to get excited about the fluffy white stuff, I recognize why not everyone shares in the joy of a good ol' winter storm. If you don't have reliable transportation on a normal, sunny day, imagine the headache a few inches of snow can cause in trying to make it into work. Can your old car handle the snow and ice? Is your ride willing to venture out just so you can make $7.35 an hour? Or do you normally walk/bike to work? That's pretty much impossible on days like this, and yet, I have a feeling your boss won't be too understanding of your predicament.

Or what if driving is the way you make your living? I'm thinking of all you truck drivers/EMTs/paramedics/firefighters/police officers/bus drivers/mail delivery people/etc. out there. Your job doesn't stop because of inclement weather. And even though it is inconvenient, not to mention dangerous at times, to do your job, the show must go on. After all, your bills won't pay themselves.

(Be careful, Daddy and Taylor! I'm thinking about you on days like this.)

Or what if you have young children? When school's canceled you're stuck looking for child care, which tends to cost more than a day at school. And what if you can't find or can't afford child care? Do you take a day off work? Would that day off be unpaid?

And what if your cupboards are bare and you're trying to get a bag of groceries from your local food pantry? You manage to drive over or get a ride there just to find that the church where the pantry is housed decided to close early today. You will have to find another pantry or wait until tomorrow.

Don't get me wrong--weather doesn't just burden people in poverty. Weather doesn't discriminate based on class. But you can see how a person living day to day, paycheck to paycheck, might be a little more affected by a significant snowfall. It's something to think about anyway.

Happy shoveling.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Yeah, who's this?

Normally I don't like to take work home on the weekends, but this week we VISTAs got an urgent email from the state office that they had 2500 voicemails from people waiting on a return call for tax/benefit services. With hundreds of calls coming in daily, they just couldn't return the calls fast enough. So they asked for our help in returning these calls--and I volunteered.

That's right--I am volunteering this weekend, not working. This call-back-a-thon is considered "direct service" because we are talking directly to clients, and direct service is a no-no in the eyes of the Corporation for National and Community Service. They say that our time should be spent doing administrative tasks to make organizations more sustainable, not helping clients directly. So all of these hours and hours I am logging in calls are really going un-logged. Instead of earning hours and comp time, we will receive a compensatory gift card when we finish our calls.

Knowing the state office needed our help, that there would be a big snow storm blowing through today, that there would be nothing else to do, and that I could use a gift card, I agreed to help. I started making calls around 11:30 and finished around 4:30 for the day, with the occasional break in between. I have made a little over 50 calls, so I have about 40 some calls to make tomorrow.

This call back process has been really...interesting. Most people I call have forgotten that they ever called the OBB and have even forgotten what the OBB does. So when I introduce myself as "Kaitlyn with the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, the home of the Ohio Benefit Bank" people do one of four things:
1) Hang up,
2) Tell me they aren't interested,
3) Ask me to repeat myself,
4) Allow me to continue talking so that I can help them.

If I can talk fast enough, I can keep people on the phone long enough to decipher the purpose of their original call and can point them in the direction of a free tax site or benefit site.

If I can't reach anybody, I often have to leave a voicemail to let people know that the OBB is returning their call. And many times, people ignore these messages, see my number on their caller ID, and call me back directly. When I answer, "This is Kaitlyn, how can I help you?" they immediately shout, "Yeah, I got a call from this number. Who's this?" I patiently explain who I am, where I'm from and why I called, and they're still suspicious. Some of the women I talk to think that I'm cheating with their husbands or boyfriends, and some people are still confused about what the OBB does or why I would be calling. They can't understand that I am actually returning THEIR call.

But then there are the calls where people are gracious and cooperative. They really appreciate the tax site referral, and take the time to ask questions about our services. This is the educational component of the Ohio Benefit Bank, which I really enjoy being a part of. Even though I'm tired of making phone calls, it's these calls that remind me that there are thousands of people out there in need of free tax services so that they can keep 100% of their refund. And that makes it all (or most of it) worth it!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We are experiencing high tax volume...

Today was just further proof that tax season is a crazy time.

This morning Alex and I made the drive to Dayton to help out at a tax clinic hosted by HarvestCorps members at Dayton Urban Ministry. We arrived a little early and journeyed into the computer lab to get set up. We knew that the agency only had two trained counselors, so chances were we would be stepping in to see the occasional client. After dropping our stuff, we logged onto the OBB website and did a quick test to find out which computers were connected to printers. We were ready.

Or so we thought.

When the clinic began at 10 a.m., there were about 7 people already there, waiting for their taxes to be done. Some people had appointments but most did not, and since there were only 4 counselors on hand (including us), people were going to have to wait.

And they certainly did wait. Due to computer and space issues, only 3 of us were able to work at a time. Even with just 3 of us online, the network couldn't handle the demand and took an average of 1-2 minutes to load each page. I called the Benefit Bank help desk to see if the problem was on their end, but alas, it was not. Eventually, people grew tired of waiting and scheduled an appointment to come back tomorrow or Friday. Some people just left all together.

But we were still able to help quite a few people during the clinic. My first client was a veteran and a former deputy sheriff who started collecting disability payments after being stabbed in the line of duty a few years ago. He was currently caring for his nephew and daughter, and he came prepared with all of his forms. We worked as quickly as we could and discovered he could anticipate a $2200 refund. He was pleasantly surprised!

But then we hit some snags. He had brought all of his forms with him except for one--his 1040 from 2008 which would include his AGI from 2008. Without that number, we couldn't e-file. So we waited while he called the IRS and sat on hold for 15 minutes before we could e-file his return. This is my fault, really. If I had asked him if he had his 2008 tax return or AGI when we first got started, we could have avoided this delay. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to do the thing I tell all of our counselors to do, so we had to wait. Furthermore, my computer apparently lacked Adobe software, so I had to wait 20 minutes for it to download before I could print any tax forms for the man's records. Finally, about 2 hours after we started, we filed his return.

My next client was a woman in her late forties who had collected unemployment all year. She wasn't able to find any work, so her only form was a 1099-G. Lucky for me, she also had brought her 2008 tax return so we could quickly access her 2008 AGI. As I glanced through her records, I noticed she had received a refund last year of over $6,000. But this year, because she wasn't working, she couldn't claim the Earned Income Tax Credit. Some of her kids had also outgrown the child tax credits and additional child tax credits so she wasn't able to claim those. And she wasn't able to claim another child as her dependent because the girl had turned 19 during the tax year and wasn't a full time student.

Fortunately, she had had federal taxes withheld from her unemployment checks, so she didn't owe anything, but she also will only get about $1000 back in her refund this year. When I told her this, she thought I had made a mistake, so we went back through her entire return to make sure I hadn't missed anything. Finally, I just had to explain why she wasn't getting as many credits this year, including the EITC. Her response was: "But it's not my fault I couldn't find work!"

And the only thing I could say was, "I know, it isn't fair, and I'm sorry your refund isn't as high as it was last year. I hope 2010 is better for you."

And you know what? That's a really crummy feeling to send someone away so disappointed. She had waited for 2 hours anticipating a big refund--she had already figured out what she would do with the money. I really hope that unemployment rolls go down this year and people can find work so that they can claim those EITC credits next year!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bicycle Capital of the Midwest

If you couldn't tell from the title of this post, I am writing today from Xenia, Ohio--"the bicycle capital of the Midwest!" (It's on the water tower so it must be official.)

I am teaching 5 new counselors how to file 2009 taxes. These trainings are largely uneventful and predictable. People will always struggle with logging in to the system, they will always forget the password (tbb12345) and they will always need me to spell my name at least 4 times (after all, there are about a thousand ways to spell variations of 'Kaitlyn.' Thanks, parents.)

They will also almost always, without fail, freak out about tax laws.

I don't know what it is, but people get crazy when it comes to taxes. Counselors are so scared of messing up their clients' tax returns that they obsess over every little tax rule in training. Some even become combative and argumentative!

For any future counselors out there, please note: I AM NOT A TAX EXPERT, NOR DO I CLAIM TO BE ONE! I know the Benefit Bank software and that's what I am here to teach. I am not giving you an advanced lesson in tax laws. For that you would need to go to law school. Or the IRS website.

But these little tax tantrums aren't just limited to new counselors. Clients also freak out about taxes. For example, a couple of weeks ago, Alex got a call from a woman wanting to do her taxes. When she asked the woman what forms she had (W-2s, 1099s, etc.) the woman said she didn't know--because she hadn't received any forms yet. Alex had to patiently explain that we can't file her taxes until she has her documents. And sure enough, the day after she got them in the mail she was in our office.

Yesterday I saw two tax clients. They had called last week and spoken with Alex, who tried to persuade them to attend our awesome tax clinic on February 13th, but both refused to wait 12 days to get their taxes done. Not wanting them to go elsewhere and pay for tax filing services, or worse, interest rates on outrageous refund anticipation loans, we scheduled them to come in.

The first woman who came in had a simple enough return. As we worked, I felt increasingly more confident and thought "tax season isn't so bad--I can handle this!" Then the afternoon rolled around. The second client was to come in at 2:00, giving me an hour and a half to do the return. But 2:30 came and went and he still wasn't there. I figured he was a no show, but then at 2:45 he called explaining he had had to wait for the mailman to arrive with his second W-2 and 1099-INT. I told to him that unfortunately Shared Harvest closes at 3:30 and the next available appointment wouldn't be until Thursday. Fully expecting to pencil him in for Thursday, he abruptly said "I'm on my way!" and hung up. So he arrived around 3, he opened his mail, and we got started. By 4:30 he had filed his federal and state taxes and he discovered he could expect about $1500 in his refund. I was glad to help--I'd want $1500 ASAP too, but WOW. Calm down, everyone, we'll get you taken care of!

I'm discovering that February will be like a permanent full moon month. People will behave in strange ways to file their taxes, get their refunds, and keep the IRS off their case.

Meanwhile, I can't wait for this class to be over so I can get home tonight and file my taxes! In fact, I should have brought my forms with me today so I could be doing it right now!

Just kidding...kinda...