Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanks - All Shapes and Forms!

One of the most extraordinary experiences I ever had in my life was Thanksgiving in prison.  Stripping us of all that we have certainly gives way for clearing the clutter and provides the opportunity to really know what is important.  I must admit I have taken things for granted a time or two.

I was recently reading a wonderful Thanksgiving blog by David Protess, President of Chicago Innocence Project.   It brought back so many memories of this day.  In 2007, following my September wrongful conviction I remember waking up in Dallas County Jail on Thanksgiving morning.  I felt sad beyond belief, Thanksgiving had always been one of our favorite family holidays.  I could not imagine going through this day without my loved ones.  I don't think I could have endured the thought of 2 more Thanksgivings like this, thinking I would be out on an Appeals bond in no time.  I suppose it is good we are protected from knowing the future.  It allows us to walk slowly through our life experiences and perhaps find something we might not have seen otherwise.

Indeed, that day I found some jewels to place in my treasure chest.  When I started circulating that morning in the Day Room which was shared by 32 women I began to pick up the festive mood.  Everyone was excited, this is the one day we were allowed a meal with "meat on a bone" meaning real meat as opposed to a soy pattie.  But more than that I began to pick up a family feeling.  With all our divergent backgrounds we had been creating a family, one that would be strengthened by that days events. 
As I walked around talking to several women I found many were engrossed in the studies of their Bible.  It seemed even more than usual.  One woman from the streets, a beautiful lady really, informed me that they purposely get arrested this time of year so they have food and shelter.  Hmm, I never really thought of that possibility for the homeless but it made sense I suppose.   Another told me they just wish society would be kinder when they got out, as they really did want to work an honest job but nobody would hire them.  People were really opening up that day, more so than I had seen in the two months prior, talking about their feelings, their hopes, their lost families.  Perhaps I was just more open that day too, allowing myself to feel so many raw feelings of my own.
But what struck me even more was what happened about an hour before we had dinner.  All the women started scurring around this enormous room gathering each other, holding hands and forming an enormous circle.  Then a song of praise started with some of the most beautiful voices I had ever heard.  The ceilings were two stories high and the accoustics were amazing.  When the song ended one of the women said to the group we would pray together, going around the circle giving each person a chance to add to our prayer of thanks.  And do you know what each person prayed about?  You might think it was freedom, release, money....not any of that.  Every single person there prayed for others...for family members, their children, their husband, their mom and dad, neices, nephews and each other.  They prayed for their loved ones' safety, growth, health and happiness.  They asked God for His presence in our lives as well as theirs.  And some actually thanked God for being locked up so they could get away from drugs and all that was bad in their lives.  It was a humbling and most loving experience and brought us all so close.  There were a lot of tears, a lot of smiles.  God's love was so evident.  We sang old hymes together, remembered from our church days.  And a couple women with exceptional singing voices did solos...the power of God in that room brought nothing less than awe.
Today, as I cook our turkey and sit at the table with my loving family to share our dinner I know I have been enriched by this experience and I know in the many prisons and jails across our Nation the people who have been silenced, many forgotten, are right now holding hands, praying for us and singing praises.  Perhaps we can find a place in our hearts to pray for each of them and for a better tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Power of Participation

This past Thursday, April 5, I had the honor of accompanying Nate to the Special Olympics, Track & Field Event.  Nate has not attended for several years now and we thought we'd give it our best.  When his brother, Brandon, dropped us off, Nate jumped right out of the car and we happily walked hand-in-hand together.  Nate came to right outside the track where his school was camped out and turned around and started running back toward the parking lot.  I haven't seen Nate run in years so already the exercise was beginning (for both of us!).  A few of the teachers (and it took a few) helped me bring Nate back.  We had to do a whole bunch of sweet talking.  Nate does not like crowds of people, new experiences or lots of noise and activity.  I really wanted him to give it a try, for him to know he was safe and quite able to get through this.  Had he escalated we would have had Brandon come pick us up but it wasn't necessary after all and Brandon was able to go on to his college classes for the day and return in time to help Nate in his last event.  Once we were able to get Nate seated one of his teachers pulled out several books.  Nate has always loved books.  He loves to read and he loves to have someone read to him so we were able to create comfortable territory amidst all the activity.

Besides all the teachers, teachers' aids, parents and students there were many volunteers.  At Nate's school they have a leadership class that spends time with the students in Nate's class on an individual basis.  They are called "pals" and have brought much happiness to Nate during his school days.  These pals helped prepare Nate for the Track & Field events by going on long walks together through the halls of the school, including up and down the stairs.  In addition, they worked at throwing balls which was also one of Nate's events.  Sometimes they all cook together and other times read.  Nate has really responded well to this program and has become more interactive as a result.  You can see them in their green shirts at the event.

Nate had a tremendous day at Special Olympics, accomplished a lot and walked out of there with confidence I haven't seen in years.  Nate doesn't seem to have a competitive nature whatsoever but he was very proud of his medals and wore them throughout the weekend.  In fact today he chose to wear them to school.  Giant steps!  What some people would consider baby steps are enormous for these kids and young adults and we celebrate every one of them along the way.  What a gift, to be a parent to each of my two guys...Nate and Brandon.  Following are a couple pictures from that day.

Nate with volunteer about to start 25 meter walk.

Nate coached by Brandon on his tennis ball throw.
You can see Nate wearing his medal from 25 meter walk.

On the back of some of the kids t-shirts was a great saying: 
 "God please let me win and if not, give me the courage and strength to finish."

Beautiful kids, beautiful day.

A real inspiration.

Monday, February 27, 2012

'Tis The Tax Season

I remember about 15 years ago listening to a sermon by Pastor Sam.  He said something that caused me to sit up straight and listen.  It was a very simple message.  If you are working for someone who is dishonest or has dishonest practices, then leave and find an honest job.  What and whom we associate with will form who we are.  I have learned over my many years that boundaries are vital, in our personal relationships as well as our business relationships.

Another friend and very wise person once said "be careful who you walk with, for those that are dirty will eventually explode into a million pieces and you will get dirty."

Well, it had taken me a year and half to find a full time job with one of these tax services.  I will not mention the name here, but what I saw and heard I knew was not good.  "Come on in" they would say, "we will get you the best tax refunds."  Preparers were given instruction to reduce self employment income or increase expenses or deductions to maximize tax credits.  I was not a preparer, but only a processor so I told myself that is not me.  Then the phone calls started rolling in from unhappy customers.  Those who said there was education credits on their return when they did not go to school.  Or dependents were taken off and other things substituted without their knowledge.  The fear in me just grew exponentially over night, to the point I felt paralyzed.

This past Saturday, I said, NO MORE.  Go out and find an honest job.  Even though I wasn't making those entries into tax returns I was at a place with dishonest practices.  PERIOD.  My pastor and my wise friend were right.  I cannot be associated with that sort of behavior.  I set my boundaries and resigned, effective immediately.  As a result of what I saw I want to point out things to watch for so that you will not become prey to those looking to make a quick tax preparer fee as you travel through the maze of tax preparation.

Number ONE and a very big ONE.  The taxpayer is responsible for everything in their return.  If there is something done improperly, credits taken or deductions/expenses unsupported, it is the taxpayer who will pay interest and penalties and perhaps face tax fraud charges.  So be aware of every entry to your return and make certain you have a copy of what was actually submitted (most often it is an electronic submission these days).  If the electronic submission is rejected by IRS, the tax preparer may decide to fix internally without ever contacting you.  That is okay if there is just a keypunch error they are correcting but not okay if they are juggling things in return without your make it look as though you have a refund similar to what you remember but not the same details as you provided at your meeting.

Beware of anyone who says they will get you the best deal.  Tax refunds and tax returns are not "deals" to be negotiated or tweaked.  They are, in fact, exactly what they are.  They are an historical accounting of what transpired financially in the prior year.  Nothing more and nothing less.

Never go to a preparer whose fees are a percentage of your refund.  They are definitely motivated to help themselves, possibly at your expense.  When filing a tax return, there are no contingency winnings, there are no risks to take.  Your return is exactly what your prior year economics spelled out to be.  Watch out for those who suggest you take "aggressive tax strategies".

Take a close look at your tax preparer.  Is this someone you would want representing you at the IRS should problems arise or a tax audit be required by IRS?

If the "tax office" feels sleazy, then it probably is sleazy.  You are not at a used car sales lot.  You are placing your most confidential information in the hands of somebody you most definitely need to be able to trust.  Protect yourself, put your sleaze antennas on, ask a lot of questions.  If they are evasive in their answers, or don't seem to have answers, that is a sign of someone not qualified to do your tax return preparation. 

In staying with the new title of my blog....Treasures of the Heart.  Take care of yourselves and your loved ones.  Only surround yourself with those who are honest and trustworthy in all of your dealings.  Be prudent and do your due diligence.  If you find yourself in a dishonest situation, remove yourself immediately.  While treasures of the heart refer to those things that are heavenly, how we live on earth really does spell out our priorities.