When you hear “tax season,” what do you think of? Probably not anything super-positive. But what if “tax season” meant that you would be assisted by a team whose goal was to get you the best refund possible AND to explore ways to improve your quality of life? Sounds pretty good! Luckily for individuals and families in King and Snohomish counties making less than $64,000 a year, that’s exactly what the United Way Free Tax Prep Campaign does.
UWKC has been offering free tax preparation to the community since 2003, and their ultimate goal is to help put some of our hard-earned money back into our savings accounts come springtime. One of the best tools they use–one that was designed specifically to help lift low- and moderate-income houses out of poverty–is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This credit primarily benefits individuals and couples within certain income brackets who have qualifying dependents, although others can access it as well. Last year in their 2016 campaign, UWKC filed 21,750 returns, earning their clients about $29.1 million in refunds. Of this, $9.4 million came from the EITC.
As if having someone else doing your taxes for free isn’t enough, UWKC goes a couple steps further. First of all, their service is accessible and low-barrier, which means that those in the most need can get help. UWKC has 27 sites in King County, from Shoreline to Federal Way, out to Bellevue and Renton. These sites have varying hours and days, from early morning to late evenings and even weekends. Many of their tax preparers are bilingual, so language isn’t a roadblock for those seeking help. And for those of us who are somewhat antisocial and were reared by technology (here’s looking at you, 20-somethings), UWKC also offers an online option that will allow you to e-file yourself for free.
So where does WithinReach fit into tax returns? A simple screening questionnaire at intake can quickly determine if families feel like they have enough to eat, if they can pay their utility bills, or if they have healthcare needs. These issues are much more up our alley, and that is where we can address creating healthy futures for our community.
From November through January, our in-person team helped train the tax campaign’s Volunteer Intake & Benefits Specialists, or VIBS. These volunteers greet clients, manage paperwork, make sure everyone has the appropriate materials, and screen clients for possible programs. They then make referrals to our Healthy Connections Online portal in order for our staff to reach out and assist. We trained the VIBS on identifying food, health, and transportation needs, and some of the local public benefits that can help. This way, they can effectively screen clients for eligibility (using a handy-dandy UWKC screening tool) and make referrals to us, coaching their clients through how they will be contacted and what WithinReach can do for them. VIBS can also give clients information on utility assistance, credit pulls, and financial counseling.
Once we receive the referral from the VIBS, it is the job of our Outreach & Enrollment Specialists to reach out to the client within two business days. Once we get in contact with the client, we talk with them to determine what they feel they need and screen them for eligibility for a host of programs. There are a huge number of community resources out there, such as play and learn groups, food banks, and prescription assistance, that people aren’t accessing simply because they don’t know they exist. Our ParentHelp123 website can also be used by clients if they want to explore resources on their own.
To bring assistance even closer to these clients, our team of AmeriCorps Outreach & Enrollment Specialists will be attending four of the busier tax sites once a week through tax season– Lake City Neighborhood Service Center, Rainier Community Center, Burien Goodwill, and the Central Library. Instead of sending in a referral, our team can actually help clients on the spot.
The Tax Campaign aims to put money back into the pockets of low-income households across King county. This money can pay medical bills, help with groceries, keep the lights turned on, or be tucked away for later. This partnership between WithinReach and the UWKC tax sites aids with our own personal mission of making healthy futures attainable for families across Washington, by connecting them to the resources they need to be healthy and safe.
A “Day On” With the University District Food Bank
No one on the team—including myself—had conducted a food drive before, and we had no idea what to expect. I personally anticipated that folks would not be very interested in speaking to us or taking a list of suggested items to donate, but to our surprise we had a lot of interest! Folks were eager to take a flyer and we had many customers come out after their shopping trips with one to two full bags of items. We also noticed many parents with younger children participating in the donation and many of them donated large boxes of baby diapers. We even had a couple of folks mention to us that they were familiar with the University District Food Bank, and we had one gentleman comment that he felt very comfortable accessing the food bank as it was set up similarly to a grocery store. After we completed collecting donations, our team met back at the food bank to sort through the donations together. Our AmeriCorps team is typically at the food bank once a week educating clients on the SNAP (food stamps) program, so it was great for us to help with and experience the operational side of the food bank.
For only four hours of work, our team was able to collect around 450 lbs. of food! It was incredibly uplifting to spend half of the day with the AmeriCorps team and to experience conducting a food drive for the first time together. I am grateful to have a team who is passionate about serving the community, even on a day off!
Changing perspectives on homelessness in Seattle
Anne: There is clearly a great stigma attached to homelessness, and many believe that these individuals are dangerous or unstable but in reality many individuals are experiencing things out of their control. The biggest realization I’ve had regarding clients facing homelessness is there are numerous factors such as domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, physical disability, and more. Many are working hard to get out of a bad situation with the cards stacked against them and a little bit of compassion with an open ear can go a long way in understanding where others are coming from. It’s a tough thing to do, but it’s important to not make fast judgments based on the way people look or where they sleep.
Jessica: I used to see, but rarely interact with, people experiencing homelessness. I felt uncertain about how to interact with the people I saw, while simultaneously feeling like I need to “help” or “fix” their situation. I think a lot of people feel this way and it causes them to avoid those experiencing homelessness, for fear of feeling uncertain or uncomfortable. Having the opportunity to work with so many clients experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity has helped me have a better understanding of the factors contributing to this issue. More importantly though, it has allowed me to interact with people experiencing these issues on a one-on-one basis. After getting a glimpse into someone’s life, they suddenly become much more relatable, and homelessness seems not just like their problem, but something that can happen to anybody. People who live in my community and neighborhood who are experiencing homelessness are just as much a part of my community as those who have permanent homes, and it’s important to treat them with the same dignity and respect.
People tend to feel uncomfortable interacting with those experiencing homelessness, perhaps because it forces us to face our own vulnerability. Rather than shutting down at this experience, lean into the opportunity and engage with the person in front of you. According to King County’s One Night Count, 4,505 individuals lived unsheltered. With such high rates of homelessness, it is difficult to know how to contribute positively to the issue. Engaging authentically with those experiencing homelessness, seeing them as the moms, dad, brothers, sisters, friends, and neighbors that they are, can be one small way to help. You might be surprised at what you learn from those around you.
A Call to End Summer Hunger
In Washington State, roughly 1 in 5 of all families with children struggle to put food on the table regularly. During the summer, the problem is exacerbated particularly for children who rely on meals from the free or reduced school lunch programs.
In hopes of ending summer hunger and addressing summer learning loss, the Summer Meals Program provides healthy, FREE meals for kids and teens under age 18 during the summer months. There are no citizenship or income requirements, and registration is also not required. The sites are held in various locations such as schools, community centers, libraries, YMCAs, parks and apartment complexes. Some of these sites have enrichment activities for children to help prevent summer learning loss so children are prepared to jump back into school come fall. This low-barrier program is a great resource for all families looking for something to do during the summer.
In King County, WithinReach has partnered with United Way of King County to reach a goal of serving an additional 82,500 meals this summer. WithinReach assists in the promotion of Summer Meals and serves as the local point of contact for families looking to locate a site close to them. Since February, our Summer Meals VISTA and Community Partnership team has partnered with school districts, attended community events, provided presentations to network meetings, and distributed materials to community organizations to promote the Summer Meals Program. It is a highly-needed resource in the community, but is often underutilized due to lack of awareness.
To continue the momentum of promoting Summer Meals, WithinReach hosted two Summer Meals Phone-a-thons on June 23rd and July 8th with volunteers to connect families to their nearest Summer Meals site.
At each event, our dedicated volunteers spent two hours in the evening at WithinReach’s office to make calls to families that had previously been assisted by WithinReach staff. Our 14 volunteers collectively made 385 calls, sharing Summer Meals information and offering to connect clients to their closest sites. Of the families they spoke to, 98% had never accessed Summer Meals, and many families indicated their appreciation in receiving a phone call. In addition to connecting families to Summer Meals, volunteers also made referrals to other services such as Basic Food benefits, health insurance and affordable housing options. While these events were largely successful in reaching new families that have never accessed Summer Meals, it also revealed that there is much more work that can be done.
Due to the great success of the events and work of volunteers, we have created a new volunteer opportunity for anyone that is interested in conducting Summer Meals calls on a more regular basis during WithinReach’s office hours. If you are interested, please contact Anna Balser at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
To find your nearest Summer Meals site please click here or text MEALS to 96859.
Partner Spotlight: United Way of King County
WithinReach is thrilled to have partnered with United Way of King County for the past 5 years to support our food access work through Bridge to Basics, Summer Meals and legislative efforts.
Our friends at UWKC recognize the importance of partnership and innovation, and invested in WithinReach’s work to connect families in crisis to basic needs programs, in particular Basic Food (food stamps). At the time of the economic downturn, the Basic Food program was sorely underutilized in King County, and federal dollars were not being effectively leveraged in our local communities (every $5 in food stamps spent generates $9 in local economic activity). At the same time, UWKC realized that an on-the-ground approach was needed to connect with people who might otherwise slip through the cracks. A partnership was born, with United Way providing the funding support, and WithinReach providing AmeriCorps staff and a deep knowledge of assistance programs, to help connect low-income families to Basic Food.
The program has evolved over the years, and our AmeriCorps team has nearly tripled in size! However, the core tenets of Bridge to Basics remain the same: Knowledge, Screening, Application Assistance, and Follow-up, to ensure that families are successfully accessing programs that will help them put food on the table and lead healthy lives. During tax season, WithinReach also works with United Way of King County and United Way of Snohomish County to provide application assistance and resources to clients at their tax sites. This partnership is crucial to helping taxpayers receive lasting benefits and services long after tax season ends.
WithinReach is also proud to partner with United Way of King County on Summer Meals, a federal nutrition program that provides free meals and snacks to kids and teens during the summer months. Driven by the fact that far too many kids do not have access to adequate food during the summer months when they are out of school, United Way launched the One Million Meals Campaign in 2013. They are increasing partnerships and outreach efforts so that more kids around Washington have access to summer meals.
In addition to program work, United Way of King County also led an effort in Olympia this year to pass legislation that would increase participation in school breakfast programs by having high needs schools offering breakfast after the bell. WithinReach was supportive of this legislative effort, and worked alongside UWKC to further this legislation. While the bill ultimately did not pass this session, the hearings served to educate legislators about this effective approach to fighting childhood hunger and generated great media attention around the issue. The momentum gained this legislative session will help future efforts around Breakfast after the Bell. This work would not be possible without the support of the United Way of King County, and we are forever grateful for their vision and drive to invest in all of this important work to improve the health and nutrition of children and families.
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’
Martin Luther King Jr.
This has been an important quote to me. As you may know I spent over a decade working to build opportunities for community members to better engage in solving our most pressing societal issues. A few years ago, I had the privilege of working on a United Way of King County task force that ultimately spawned the creation of the Volunteer Impact Program, a program that helps nonprofits use volunteers more effectively. I’m delighted that WithinReach is participating in this important program so we can more effectively engage the community in our work.
When I think about how we are going to make a true and lasting impact on our community, I know it’s going to require all of us working in different ways. No longer is it enough for government to provide the safety net, it’s now going to take all of us to create that safety net for our neighbors. There is no single approach to solve our most pressing issues, but I am confident that volunteers are a key part of the solution.
I know from years of working with volunteers, that great volunteer experiences don’t just happen. The requirement to find meaningful work for the volunteer and insure it aligns with actual organizational needs is critical. We need to recruit and train our volunteers on why the work is important and educate them on the need. We need to say thank you and we need to expect them to follow through on their commitments.
If we build this capacity, I am convinced that not only will we make progress in serving our clients better, we will create a corps of people that understand the complexity of poverty and social injustice. This will result in healthier families and healthier communities.