Death, taxes, and finding hope

For the past 20 plus years, Parmjit has spent her weekends during income tax filing season, sitting in a boardroom-style office on the top floor of a Sikh gurdwara, or temple, ensuring that her community’s most vulnerable people receive the tax benefits they are entitled to. Despite having been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, Parmjit has rarely missed a weekend at the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP) clinic, even during her treatments.

As a CRA Public Affairs Branch employee, I met up with Parmjit at the gurdwara in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she has been a CVITP volunteer, to talk about her experience.

On a quiet weekday morning, I enter the temple, remove my shoes, and the familiar smells of langar, or free meals being prepared for the congregation, waft through the air. The rhythmic sounds of hymns flood each crevice of the gurdwara, filling me with calm. I wash my hands, don a head scarf, pay my respects in the prayer hall, and find Parmjit tucked away in a 90s motif office down the corridor

Parmjit, a recently retired CPA, sits behind a desk, tapping away on her keyboard, while an elderly turbaned man, clutching his cane, looks on. A few others are sitting on chairs along a wall, papers and envelopes in hand, awaiting their turn.

“In Sikhism, seva, or giving back, is ingrained in us. I feel like I get more out of my volunteer work than those that I’m helping.” Balbir, a retiree in his 70s, lost his wife a year ago after a lengthy illness, and has been struggling to care for his adult daughter who lives with disabilities. Caught up in caring for his wife and daughter, and now dealing with his grief, his taxes had long fallen by the wayside. Financial issues, compounded by his lack of proficiency in English, made it difficult for Balbir to seek the help he needed, until he heard about the clinic. Tears fill his eyes as he recounts how Parmjit helped him file his taxes. “I had no idea that I should have been receiving benefit payments for my daughter and me. I will never be able to thank her for everything she has done for us.”

Balbir’s story is one of many that Parmjit has compiled over the years. When I commend her on the lives she has touched, she humbly redirects the praise. “It’s the CRA that deserves the credit for the CVITP. They provide us with the training to make this happen.” She is grateful to have been able to serve a gurdwara, a place that is meaningful to her, and has provided solace to Vancouver’s Sikh community’s most needy people, including seniors and newcomers. “I can’t describe how rewarding it is to see people walk out of this office with a feeling that a big burden has been lifted off their shoulders.” Balbir gathers his paperwork, slowly gets up, and places a hand on Parmjit’s head – a gesture of immense gratitude. She stops him, takes his hand in hers, and says, “No, thank you for giving me an opportunity to do seva.”

When the lineup has diminished, Parmjit and I head downstairs for langar. I ask her if it was hard to volunteer when she was dealing with her own health woes. She looks at me pensively. “I’ve never thought about that. I didn’t think about my cancer when I was at the tax clinic. I was focused on the people that needed me.” An embodiment of ‘people first’, she quickly changes the topic to how the CVITP is great for students or newcomers looking to gain work experience, or for people who just want to find a unique way to do seva.

I ask Parmjit how long she’ll continue to volunteer, “As long as people need help.”

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