Monday, January 24, 2011

Tax Time

This past week was a cold one here in Wichita Falls, Texas.  We missed out on the snow that Oklahoma got, but had temperatures in the teens and some icy mornings, which kept us from doing outreach a few days.  Eventually we decided that it might be best if we did outreach anyways, but confine it to businesses and schools so that we were traveling mostly in the truck and van and just running information inside.

However, the bad weather did give us the opportunity one afternoon to meet a great member of the community and visit her youth center.  Brenda Jarrett runs the Youth Opportunities Center on the East Side of Wichita Falls.  Brenda's center is a historic building in the neighborhood and provides a space for the kids of the neighborhood to come, hang out, express themselves, and develop their talents.  On Saturdays volunteers come in and offer piano, guitar, drums, art, and boxing lessons.  Brenda has offered the youth in the area programs such as finding businesses that would allow the kids to spray paint the sides of their buildings legally, instead of vandalizing them at night.  She told us stories about how the kids that came when she first opened the center are now bringing their kids there too.  The Youth Opportunities Center seems like such a great program with so much potential, but not enough funding.  The building is a perfect space, but lacks central heating and air and major repairs need to be made to the roof and interior of her teen building, which is not usable right now.  So, we decided we would offer her information to become a potential sponsor for AmeriCorps NCCC and recommend her to the Denver Campus.  That way, she would have the opportunity to have a team and offer more programs during the week for a limited time and get some construction help potentially for the buildings.  Keep your fingers crossed for her!

Tomorrow we start our first official week of tax filing.  At least half the team will be filing taxes every day this week for employees of local businesses, and Saturday will be the first day we are open to the public.  So far, I think 2-1-1 has scheduled quite a few appointments for Saturday, and I am sure that there will be a lot of walk-ins as well.  Unfortunately I think the space only provides for 16 computers and this will still be cramped.  Hopefully it won't be too chaotic with all of us trying to ask questions at once. 

Other than that we don't have anything too special planned for the week.  My team leader and I took the challenge of being vegetarians for the week, today being day 1, and I have already decided this is not the lifestyle for me.  I was so jealous of everyone eating meat at dinner tonight, but I am pretty sure I can tough through it until next Monday.  Thursday we are going back to the roller skating rink for PT, which I could get used to doing.  It is a work out, but fun for us as a team at the same time, so no complaints there.  Hopefully I will have some inspirational tax stories for y'all by the end of the week, but we don't get another day off until Sunday so who knows when I will post again.  I am trying to do better though, bear with me!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

From Trash Pick-Up to Tax Certification & Everything in Between

Yesterday completed our first week here in Wichita Falls, Texas, and we had quite a few unique experiences thrown in there.

Work was pretty average for the most part.  We spent our mornings working on our tax training at the office until Friday, when we went to Midwestern State University and took the first two tests to become certified.  Friday morning I missed the review because I had to go to the doctor's office.  Unfortunately I have bronchitis, which I came down with on Wednesday and am still not quite over.  We completed our certification yesterday morning, and are officially allowed to file people's tax returns.  Annie, Josh and I went with our supervisor Susanna this morning and filed 9 returns.  I was surprised by how much easier the returns were to actually file than the scenarios we had practiced with and been tested on.  Why do they always make the tests so much harder than the actual situations?

Outreach was a little less normal than training.  Since we were left to plan a strategy on our own, we were not real familiar with the neighborhoods or the best way to go door to door and hang materials.  We worked pretty slow and only made it through two neighborhoods by the end of the week.  Today, we went to one of the rural areas about twenty minutes outside of the city and covered the main neighborhood that we were hoping to canvas, but we still have to go back and pass materials out to the different target businesses. 

Before we began outreach last week, our supervisors told us to be careful, make sure we walk in pairs, and be mindful of people's dogs.  Well, my team leader and one of my teammates were covering a street that looped into one of the main roads, so they decided to work from opposite ends and meet each other in the middle.  This seemed like an efficient way to cover the street, so off they went.  However, my team leader only made it to two houses before a large dog came bounding from behind one of the houses.  The dog was growling, hair on end trying to corner my team leader, but all she could do was to continue backing down the street.  She ended up calling 911 and having animal control come to get the dog.  Moral of the story; not all dogs are nice, but don't run away from them.

We also tried to experience a few local things during the week.  On Wednesday, we went to the local roller skating rink and skated for our physical training.  It was fun to do something like that since most of us hadn't been since we were in middle school.  We also went to a local BBQ restaurant called The Branding Iron and experienced our first Texas BBQ.  It is a lot different than South Carolina BBQ, and I considered what I ate to be more along the lines of hash, but everyone really enjoyed it and it was a ton of food.  We are all looking forward to trying out a Mexican restaurant this weekend and going to the batting cages on Thursday as a team.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Wichita Falls, Texas doing Taxes

We arrived in Wichita Falls, Texas yesterday afternoon, and we were greeted by our supervisors, Lana and Susanna.  They showed us around our Spike housing, which happens to be one of their former employers homes. It is so nice.  It is a two story home with four bedrooms and three bathrooms a nice kitchen and a front and back yard. It is definitely a change from the apartments in Arkansas and dorm life in Denver.  It is almost like being at home, minus quite a bit of furniture. 

The first night in the house was fun.  We went out to dinner at Texas Roadhouse, fitting right?  Afterward we went shopping and got a few necessities for groceries and then returned to the house.  We then proceeded to play sardines and hide and seek.  This house has so many good was a good time.  It's the little things in life that keep us entertained in Americorps.

Today was our first day of work with the United Way.  We arrived this morning at the office, and they had prepared breakfast for us and invited a few prominent members of the town to welcome us.  We spoke with the director of the Wichita Falls United Way, the mayor, and the county judge.  It was great to feel really welcomed by the town, who seemed really excited to have us here for the next two months.  We spent the rest of the day learning more about the United Way of Wichita Falls, the programs it offers, as well as the tax program we will be participating in.  Wichita Falls United Way focuses its funds and programs on Income , Health, and Education including programs for families and service men and women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The program we will be involved with is the VITA program.  VITA is an acronym for Voluntary Income Tax Assistance.  We will be filing taxes for working individuals earning below a certain yearly income.  This service is free of charge and also is used to help people find out about the EITC, Earned Income Tax Credit as well as other credits they might qualify for on their return.  Also, this year for the first time the United Way is providing rural mobile filing sites, which will allow us to get out and interact with community members that are unable to make it to other sites or are generally unaware of the program.

At first I was not excited to be coming to Texas to help people with their taxes, but I am more excited after today.  This program is important to this community and its economy.  It is helping people get money that they never realized they could, which could help their lives significantly.  I am also excited to get to use some of the knowledge and skills I learned as a business major in college.  I have questioned several times why I went to college and majored in the areas I did, but this will be a reminder of how much I enjoyed learning about business and different aspects of the economy.

We will be training for the next two weeks, becoming certified on potentially 3 different levels.  My blog will probably not be very interesting in regards to my training, but we are already planning some cool ISPs and fun things to do while we are here.  Our sponsors have made a ton of suggestions for us and have already received invitations from members of the community to host us for dinners.  I will be sure to post plenty of pictures, since we are allowed to take them now.