It’s officially tax season at the Human Services Center at Swinburne! We kicked off our first full week of VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) Tax Preparation services at the beginning of February and have since been receiving an influx of families and individuals who are eager to get their taxes prepared for free at our center. This is a nice opportunity for anyone with an income level below $60,000 to receive a personalized service that normally costs hundreds of dollars at places like H&R Block.
Ashley and I have become VITA certified volunteers in an effort to help with the greeting and intake process for these individuals. As this involves filling out detailed information on a lengthy form and even up to two hours of waiting around to be seen by an IRS Certified volunteer, the intake process often leads to conversations in which we may learn a great deal about the people who walk through our doors. We have met and interacted with an incredibly diverse range of individuals of all ages, ethnicities, religions, and professional backgrounds. One truly humbling experience occurred this past Tuesday during a particularly long waiting period. I was assisting a man who was in a bit of a rush because he had to return to work that afternoon. Nonetheless, he was very easygoing and conversed with many of the other individuals in the waiting room. He carried a bible with him and was talking to another man about tips on finding employment. He was also wearing a Bluetooth headset and made a couple of professional phone calls during his wait, which gave me the impression that he was incredibly put-together, motivated, and in control of his life.
When time began running out, I realized he was going to have to leave, so I let him know about the drop off service that was available as an alternative to having to return later and start the process all over again. He took the opportunity to sincerely thank me for my kindness, which struck me as odd because I felt that I was not really going out of my way to be especially kind. He explained that in situations like these, the staff he has worked with in the past are usually very short and treat him like a name on a list rather than an actual person. He went on to explain that he was recovering from a very difficult point in his life, including a previous suicide attempt and legally separating from his wife. I was truly shocked to learn that he had been through so much. He tapped his bible with a knowing smile and thanked me again before walking down the hallway and out the door. I stood there in awe of his courage and how he had clearly come very far since the darker events of the past year of his life. The experience served as a reminder that there is so much more to our clients than meets the eye.
In fact, I encountered a similar feeling the day before when a rather flustered looking woman came in and explained that her son was not going to his classes at school and that she wanted information on GED courses because he was going to drop out. I remember immediately feeling judgmental towards her son, thinking that it was incredibly selfish of him to ditch school while his mother was working hard every day, and that taking GED classes was the easy way out. However, the woman went on to explain that her son was very smart, and his teachers had praised him on his testing scores in math, English, biology, and history. It seemed that he was incredibly intelligent but that the classroom setting just wasn’t working for him. He was not failing school; the system was failing him. Her story caused me to seriously rethink my assumptions about other people’s lives.
I have definitely spent a great deal of time this week reflecting on the many ways our social systems fail to adequately serve the clients we work with. While the work we do is valuable, we are truly limited in what we can do because we are at the mercy of these systems. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough money. There aren’t enough jobs. There isn’t enough time. But none of these issues is as problematic as this one: sometimes, there just aren’t enough people who care. If the policy-changers and lawmakers who influence these systems spent more time thinking about the lives and stories of the people affected by their decisions, I believe we would be living in a vastly different social landscape. I think it’s important for us to take the time to reflect on the experiences we have with our customers and to remember that they are more than names on a list. It’s important for us to remember that our kindness may be the only form of validation they receive in a world where they’re are otherwise told that their lives do not matter. We have to let them know that they matter.