Jeanette Lambert was up to her elbows in paper work. She was helping an elderly woman bring order out of a year's accumulation of mundane personal papers--bills, receipts, insurance claims--when Lambert suddenly and unexpectedly struck gold.
Buried in the jumble was a U.S. Treasury check for $10,000.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," Lambert said. "It was dated last October and it had never been cashed."
Lambert recalled the incident as a member of the American Assn. of University Women's Paperwork Brigade. The women have become the dauntless unravelers of paper work confusion, disorganization, snafus and oversights. The brigade sets up shop from 2 to 5 p.m. on the second Friday of each month at the Great American First Bank in Laguna Hills and, free of charge, helps those who would rather have a root canal than sort personal papers, organize insurance forms, check official mathematics, put documents in chronological order and, at this time of year in particular, help decipher tax forms.
The idea for the brigade grew out of a money management study group called "Money Talks," sponsored by the Laguna Hills branch of the AAUW for its nearly 200 members, Lambert said. She also has been a six-year volunteer for the American Assn. of Retired Persons, which offers free tax consultation, and believed that such a service--expanded to include almost any paper work problem--would be useful, particularly to senior citizens.
"Also, we feel we're educating people as we do this," said Lambert, a retired high school English teacher, "and that's what the AAUW tries to do."
Eight AAUW women serve on the Paperwork Brigade, although only three are present at the bank for any single day's consultation.
"So far, a lot of it seems to be health stuff," she said. "The sort of thing where we're matching doctor bills with health care statements. And a lot of these people have poor eyesight and can't see to figure the forms out. I had one man come in who had tunnel vision. He could remember almost everything (about the forms) but he couldn't see anything."
Some of the work is often complex. The women always explain that "we are not attorneys and we are not accountants," Lambert said. "It's not easy for anyone to figure it out. If I had to do this sort of thing for myself, it would drive me up the wall. I don't mind doing it for other people, though. It doesn't make me as nervous."
Most customers have been elderly residents of nearby Leisure World, like Allen F. Peirce), 88, who said he was confused by the multiplicity of health forms he received after undergoing emergency medical treatment.
"This is a very difficult thing," he told Katherine Wentworth, a retired librarian working with the Paperwork Brigade. "It's the most confusing billing arrangement I've ever seen in my life."
After about 30 minutes of sorting and identifying the forms, Wentworth turned to Peirce and said, "I think we can get these filled out."
"By whom?" Peirce wanted to know.
Wentworth smiled. "By us."
Most customers "are very grateful, although the woman with the $10,000 check didn't even say thank you," Lambert said. "I think she was embarrassed.
"But we're hoping for another one like that. Maybe we'll find a million-dollar lottery ticket."