By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
United Way of Northeast Florida volunteer Steve Norris seems to light up a room with her energy and welcoming spirit, whether she’s helping one client in a housing complex office or offering encouragement to a room full of people with their tax forms. Norris goes out of her way to make sure whoever gets their taxes done through United Way’s RealSense initiative feels welcomed.
Norris has volunteered as a tax preparer with RealSense for 16 years, inspired to help when she realized families who desperately needed extra money were going without accurate tax refunds.
“I saw that there was unclaimed money being left on the table,” Norris said. “Earned Income Tax Credit money was going unclaimed. It was their money, and they needed it.”
At the time, Norris was a center director for WorkSource, helping the unemployed find jobs and establish self-sufficiency. Seeing those same families go without tax-refund money owed to them was too much for her. She had to help, she said.
“My parents set the example,” Norris said. “They were people who always helped, who always saw the glass as half full.”
Norris said her mother, growing up in an age where people were divided by color and class, really didn’t care about differences and pushed her children to do their best. Those high expectations helped Norris and her brothers to do well by themselves and others.
Norris moved to Jacksonville after meeting her husband while they were students at Bethune-Cookman University. They returned to her husband’s native neighborhood, where he became the pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church. She took on the roles of pastor’s wife and mother to her two daughters on top of working full-time.
Now semi-retired, Norris still helps at the church in addition to her United Way RealSense volunteer time. She thinks about lessening her commitments, but when she thinks about the families she’s helped, she is inspired to continue to dedicate her time to helping the community.
“It’s overwhelming to think about,” Norris said. “There was the woman with four kids, who rode the buses with them from 6-8 a.m. dropping them off at school and heading to work at Baptist. She used her refund to get a car so that they wouldn’t have to be out so much. Another couple had just moved here from up North, got lost, and I stood in the street to help them find our site. They’re still coming back 10 years later.”
Norris said United Way’s RealSense initiatives gives clients an opportunity to look at their financial decisions and begin to make adjustments long-term. She loves being part of this important work.
“It’s a way to give people hope, to break the cycle,” she said. “By giving them hope, they can begin to stand up. I just have to help – I was born that way.”