Smiles Tell the Story

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, known as the Grand Strand for its long stretch of coastline, is without a doubt, a tourist's town. With only about 30,000 “locals,” our city has a lot of amenities thanks to the hospitality industry, but is really just a small town at heart. Our office is located in an inland suburb of Myrtle Beach, known as Carolina Forest.

On March 17, 2013, a spark ignited a massive fire in our small community. Thanks to dry conditions, high winds, and dated fire codes, the flames spread quickly, engulfing an entire condo community within minutes. The Windsor Green Condos are located just one mile from our office. In all, 26 buildings and 108 units were destroyed leaving dozens of families homeless.

In the days following the fire, the community rallied with fundraisers and donations of clothing and household goods. Our office served as a drop-site for donations and our employees gathered car loads of personal items to help replace some of what the fire stole from these families. Despite these efforts, it didn't seem like we were doing enough. These clients are our friends. I've known many of them for years. We've watched their children grow up.

While I considered donating funds to the Red Cross, I really wanted to focus on the families we serve. So I scoured our client list, identifying by address, the seven clients who lived in what once was, Windsor Green. I called each one, offering our sympathies, asking “How can we help?” In the following conversations, I heard terrifying stories of that knock on the door, screams to “Get out!” and the surreal get-away as they watched their lives go up in flames. Knowing the tough months ahead, and hoping I didn't offend anyone, I offered to refund their tax preparation fees from that year. We prepared packets for each client including copies of their tax return, picture Ids, social security cards and a check.

One by one, each client came in to pick up the packet. There were two families, one was cousins to the other who had just moved to the beach so their kids could grow up together too. There was one college-age kid, wondering how he would be able to graduate in May without clothes, books and a car. There was an older couple, who had spent years building a life they could enjoy in retirement. With hugs and tears, we offered to help in any way we could.

In the off-season, I got calls and visits from several of these clients, asking for information, job opportunities or just checking in. The older couple came in several times, each visit more heart-breaking than the last. Miss Helen and her husband, Bill, are picture perfect southerners. He always pulled out her chair to sit and held her hand. She always wore a warm smile and a butterfly barrette in her hair. But in the months after the fire, her smile faded. When she came in, we talked and hugged, but she just wasn't the same. She said she felt lost. They'd consolidated their lives when they moved here from North Carolina, keeping only what meant most – pictures and mementos of a well-lived life. Now, it was all gone.

As Tax Season 2014 began, I wondered about our Windsor Green families. The Condos were being rebuilt and were set to re-open in February. Luckily, I didn't have to wonder long. Over the next few weeks all seven of those clients came back, and when they did it was a party. With hugs and a grand entrance, each one greeted us like family. The cousins had relocated to houses just a few blocks from each other. The college-age kid graduated, and is now engaged to be married. And when Miss Helen came back, her smile told the story. They had moved back into Windsor Green, and outfitted a new life – including several new butterfly barrettes to adorn her hair.

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