Long-time volunteer and former board member of Prepare + Prosper, Leo Gabriel, is a professor of business at Bethel University. Each year, he requires students in his Individual Tax Preparation and Federal Income Tax classes to volunteer with Prepare + Prosper and keep a journal of their experience. Following is an entry by Natalie Simons, an accounting and finance major.

The feeling after my interim class, Individual Tax Preparation, had finished and we were let out on our own to conquer tax preparation at Prepare + Prosper can be described in one word: panic.

I was absolutely freaking out over the fact that I would be handling real people’s taxes and livelihood. This wasn’t just some assignment to turn in or a test to study for. I admit I lacked confidence in the fact that I could perform, that people would actually be willing to help me, and that I could do this on my own.

But boy was I wrong.

My experience with Prepare + Prosper this tax season has been one of the most eye-opening, heart-changing, and wonderful experiences of my life. Being thrown into the real world without a professor to turn to or a book to find the answers in has allowed me to grow into a student who searches for answers before asking and takes the learning into my own hands.

I enjoyed having to rely on myself to dig deeper. I like the responsibility of people trusting me to get the best possible outcome for them. The other volunteers are some of the most selfless and kind people I have met in my entire life (specifically our site manager Karen), the taxpayers are extremely understanding and patient, and the environment of the tax clinic itself is more uplifting than you could imagine.

But more than anything with this journal entry, I want to share and be honest about my heart changing during my time at Prepare + Prosper.

Before this experience, I was biased. Despite how often in class we talked about the factual evidence of those who experience poverty, the simple fact was that I held a strong bias that poverty is due to laziness or just not working hard enough like “the rest of us.”

As I type this today, I am proud to say that my walls of bias toward those of lower income status are crashing down due to the wonderful people I am meeting and the incredible stories of resilience, hard work, perseverance, and circumstance that I am hearing along the way.

I had two experiences that really jumped out at me as heart-changing moments during my volunteer work with Prepare + Prosper.

Sara was the first taxpayer I worked with. She was a hardworking single parent of a teenage boy. It was her first time at Prepare + Prosper, and she was overly thankful of what we were doing for her. After she learned of her refund amount, the first words out of her mouth were, “Oh my, this will help me and my son so much. This is a new start for us.” She even began to tear up a little bit and I remember the feeling of being so confused by the small size of her refund and significant gratitude. It hit me that people REALLY need this money because what they are making just isn’t cutting it for their family. The aspect of people who work full time live in poverty that we discussed in interim finally came to light in a real life situation for me. 

The next taxpayer who made a huge impact on me was a man who had emigrated from Syria in 2014. He was a soft spoken, kind individual who expressed how grateful he was to be in this country, when in my opinion, it felt like this country is working against him. Here is why I say this:

His wife still lives in Syria, therefore was unable to be present during tax preparation, forcing him to file separately. 80% of his income minus what he needed to live went to his family back in Syria to support their schooling and necessities, but he was unable to claim any of them as dependents because of the location. He was not covered for half of the year in insurance because the state said he made too much to qualify, leaving him with a penalty. And lastly, his rent amount was too low for his income level, thus not giving him a return on property tax. In my opinion, it felt like the tax system here was doing everything it could to make getting a return extremely hard for him. If I’m being honest, for the first time in my life, I felt really real empathy for someone who emigrated from another country.

In closing, this has been one of the most life-altering experiences I have had.

It has allowed me to not only grow my skills and knowledge of our tax system but it has opened my eyes and my heart in ways I didn’t imagine. It has caused me to confront my biases and judgements.

I am grateful for everyone at Prepare + Prosper who really value their volunteers and provide a terrific experience.

Signed, Natalie Simons