The Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles is known for many things. A rich tradition of street art. Thriving immigrant communities. And, unfortunately, a reality where 26.1% of families in the neighborhood are living below the poverty line and 17.1% are unemployed.

Organizations like Golden State Opportunity grantee El Centro de Ayuda believe that this situation is a chance to lift up the neighborhood by achieving one simple goal: helping the neighborhood develop self-sufficiency and, thus, lift themselves up.

El Centro de Ayuda provides a plethora of valuable services to their community including free tax preparation and financial wellness training.

And when a community member walks into the center or attends an event sponsored by El Centro, they are met by people like Yessica De Leon, who look just like them and know the neighborhood and Los Angeles well because they are part of that community. And they are IRS-certified Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) preparers. VITA preparers work to connect clients with tax credits like the CalEITC and Young Child Tax Credit, which can yield valuable extra money for already struggling clients.

De Leon, a Senior Case Manager and Financial Stability Program Coordinator at El Centro, grew up in South Central LA and knows all too well how important every dollar earned can be to these families and individuals.

“Clients see that there isn’t a big difference between me–sitting on this side of the chair–and them, sitting on the other side,” De Leon said. “We all have these points in our lives where we have questions and need help. I’ve had those questions.When I step out this door, I a member of the community, just like them.”

That personal connection means that it’s that much easier for El Centro to deliver much needed financial education and truly reach the community. Ana Alvarez, Mental Wellness Coordinator, emphasizes that self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal for all of El Centro’s outreach efforts. Alvarez is from the Boyle Heights area herself and sees her work as a chance to give back to her community and help them help themselves.

“One of our main tenets is to show clients different paths to take,” Alvarez said. “Being with them on that path is important so that one day when we finish our work with them, they’re able to do it on their own.”

The ultimate reward for both of these young women, however, lies in something simple: seeing their clients’ faces when they help them.

“When we prep tax returns, I often see this moment of gratitude, where they’re thinking ‘great I have something to rely on, a safety net,’” said De Leon. “It’s a wonderful thing to see them get this satisfaction and get a little money back to help out.”

For more information about El Centro de Ayuda and its work, visit