Grace Toll is a recent UM graduate who serves her community at the United Way of Washtenaw County in a variety of roles. Her blog posts will be published monthly.
From the beginning of the new year until the end of tax season in May, I probably spent six hours out of my eight-hour workday answering phone calls for our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) clinic.
This task was something clearly listed in my job description, for which I was sure I was prepared. I’ve worked my fair share of phone jobs. I was answering phones at a university gym when the president announced the campus shutdown due to the COVID-19 crisis. I was sure I’d seen it all. This assumption was quickly questioned.
I give a lot to my job, and my job gives a lot back to me. But during these months, the amount I G.A.V.E. was unmatched. I gave advice, I advocated for those who weren’t able to get appointments with us, I volunteered my lunch hour to cross a few more numbers off the callback list, and I did all I could to advance equity by treating every single caller with respect and compassion.
But mostly, I gave. And I received.
I’m a chronic empath -- when someone else feels pain, I feel pain. When I get a phone call from a crying mother who can’t afford to pay someone to do her taxes, I want to cry and do her taxes myself (although I’m sure that would end poorly for both of us).
Our VITA program is fantastic -- despite a global pandemic and a quick pivot to a 100% virtual program this year, we were able to return more than a million dollars in refunds and credits to our community members who need it most. An incredible team of volunteers spends hundreds of hours preparing taxes for free each season. And our staff VITA team is composed of some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met.
This year, however, things looked a little different. While unable to hold in-person appointments, our team and clients adapted to a virtual format. And with almost all of our staff working remotely, adapting definitely was not easy -- and left me in front of the phones oftentimes alone.
Over these months, especially toward the beginning, I was challenged by what felt like hundreds of phone calls a day. I received questions I had absolutely no idea how to answer. I had to turn away clients who were in tears on the other end when appointments were filled. I was treated with disrespect and hostility from clients who were frustrated with our new virtual format. It would take up to a half hour to check the voicemail machine because every time I reached the end, we’d have five new messages.
It was overwhelming. At times, I questioned myself and whether I was really cut out for the job. I became frustrated with myself when I became frustrated with callers.
The thing I kept needing to remind myself of: taxes are stressful. Pandemics are stressful. Trying to do your taxes virtually during a pandemic is double stressful.
Shifting my perspective wasn’t easy, but as soon as I was able to step back and try to put myself in the shoes of each caller, the load became exponentially lighter. I quickly learned that a lot of people simply needed someone to listen -- to the struggles they were facing, to the concerns they had about sending personal information over email, and even to the praise they wanted to give to our program and volunteers. On every call, it could’ve been so easy for me to cut people off and remind them my only job was to sign them up for appointments, but that wasn’t the truth. When I accepted this role, I committed to our mission of creating a world of equal opportunity for everyone. My job was to sign people up for appointments, yes, but also to provide the resources and support people need to thrive. And sometimes, the only resource someone needs is a listening ear.
When I started focusing on giving back on every single call instead of obsessing over working my way through the ever-piling callback list, everything changed. I started noticing the best in people’s calls instead of the worst -- focusing on their eventual gratefulness instead of initial hostility. And when this hostility did arise, it was much easier to empathize with callers and try to work with them instead of talking at them. I can even recall multiple conversations that started negatively and were quickly reversed, ending with the caller satisfied and thankful. All this, and I still made it through the voicemail list each day.
I gave to these callers -- I gave empathy, assistance, resources, and a listening ear -- and these callers gave so much back to me. Every conversation was humbling, gratifying, and a chance for reflection and growth. The genuine gratefulness I heard in individuals’ voices, the different perspectives and experiences I was able to witness, and the ongoing opportunity I have to learn from callers to this day makes it all worth it.
So, what will you GIVE in the future to practice empathy and understanding?