By Jen Fletcher and Lindsay Wong, 2018 Get It Back Campaign Interns
Every tax season, organizations with free tax preparation sites work tirelessly to provide tax resources and help to members of their communities.
Free tax preparation helps taxpayers keep more of their earnings and puts money back into local economies. And unlike paid preparers, who aren’t required to have a license, volunteers are trained extensively and certified by the IRS each year.
Here are some tax season highlights from a few of our dedicated VITA partners.
BakerRipley in Houston, Texas
BakerRipley has helped the Houston community with free tax preparation services since 2009, with a focus on low-income families and taxpayers who don’t speak English as a first language. In addition to free tax preparation, BakerRipley offers a matched savings program. Clients can save anywhere between $100 and $1,000 of their tax refund in a savings account with BakerRipley’s Promise Credit Union and receive a 25 percent match if the money is saved for a year.
Cristina Cave, the community relations manager, says, “We still get shocked when clients remember who prepared their taxes, or they come the following year asking for that person, and they will wait, even when there are others ready to help. They trust you, and sometimes feel more comfortable with you.”
From left to right: Cristina Cave, Maria de la Cruz, Celina de la Cruz, Jonathan Bisso, and Bereket Saare
Louisville Asset Building Coalition in Louisville, Kentucky
This tax season, the Louisville Asset Building Coalition hosted its first Taxathon, which completed 216 returns and gave back $473,781 in refunds to the community. According to Brittany Sims, program director at the coalition, the event featured 24 hours of free tax preparation, a community resource fair, superhero themed activities and a live-streamed kick-off. The coalition also used the Taxathon as an opportunity to promote financial empowerment. Throughout the event, they gathered stories from clients about the VITA experience, plans for refunds, and financial health.
Moving forward, Louisville Asset Building Coalition wants to continue its focus on relationship building with employers to establish new tax sites and reach new clients.
Uintah Basin Association of Governors in Roosevelt, Utah
Lauren Schwanz helps organize the Uintah Basin VITA program, which serves Daggett, Duchesne, and Uintah Counties in Utah. For four years, Lauren, her colleagues, and their team of volunteers have established a VITA program, provided free financial education, and completed over 800 individual tax returns. Serving a large, rural area means that Lauren’s team has had to get creative. They’ve seen significant success with virtual sites and are grateful for the hard work of their volunteers.
For Lauren, preparing taxes at a VITA site is the best way to make an immediate difference in the community. “I have had many experiences volunteering where I walked away wondering if my time and work made any sort of difference. This is not a question that VITA volunteers must ask themselves. Measurable dollar amounts in savings and refunds attest to the impact of the program and the hard work of the volunteers.”
The Piton Foundation in Denver, Colorado
Brooke Visser is a Campaign Associate at The Piton Foundation, where she helps workers in Colorado “get it back.” This stellar team has conducted their EITC outreach campaign for the past 25 years, and partners with the Colorado Community College system to operate Tax Help Colorado’s 20 tax sites statewide. Their sites are staffed primarily by student volunteers, who receive college credit for becoming IRS certified tax preparers.
For Brooke, it’s all about “helping hardworking families save money and put refunds back into their wallets.” Her experience last year with Wendy, a single mother and certified nursing assistant who received almost $9,000 through a combination of tax credits and refunds, is a great illustration of the importance of Tax Help Colorado’s work.
United Way of Tarrant County in Fort Worth, Texas
According to Pennie Clayton, the VITA volunteer coordinator at United Way of Tarrant County, the most unique aspect of VITA sites are the returning clients. Every year, their VITA sites grow because of returning clients who share their experiences with friends and family.
In 2018, United Way of Tarrant County hosted its first Taxathon event. They were happy to see volunteers from local banks come out to support the event. After reviewing volunteer forms, Pennie realized that the site had recruited more volunteers than the program has had since its inception. “Those individuals are [dedicated to] to giving back. I actual got emotional when I was reviewing the volunteer forms.”
Enterprise Community Partners Ohio in Cleveland, Ohio
Through Enterprise Community Partners, Keely Andrews has filed hundreds of tax returns over the past seven years and is as enthusiastic as ever about helping taxpayers “get it back!” One tip from Keely’s experiences? “Go out into the community and meet people. The best way to spread the [VITA] message is through speaking engagements in the community. Billboards can go unread, flyers get thrown away, posters get taken down. If you can speak at a block club/neighborhood meeting or a GED class, you have peoples’ attention and they will go home with the knowledge that you give them.”