VITA: Refunds for All

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The tax system is far from perfect: it rewards the richest and neglects both immigrants and the childless poor. On the plus side, the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) is a progressive measure to redistribute some of the wealth to those who need it most. Also, because it requires wages it de-stigmatizes the money that goes to help single parents and poor families separating the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving.” My job as a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program volunteer is to help low income individuals file their tax returns and to award as many credits as I can to those who qualify.

I found this opportunity through The Women’s Building website. I wanted to volunteer there and committing every Saturday for nearly 4 months seemed like the perfect opportunity. I signed up via e-mail and asked to be a Tax Preparer or Translator (English-Spanish). Other positions included being a Screener/ Greeter or Quality Reviewer. It sounded a tad daunting when they started mentioning certification, the IRS and current tax law, but I was excited to learn something new and to file my own taxes this year!

Beginning in January 2014, I was to report to a certain location for training provided by United Way. The location kept changing but the time was 9-5pm for three consecutive Saturdays. I believed we would all take the exam on the last day, but the process was a bit more lax. The exam was available online for free, it was multiple choice, had no time limit, and was open book. This exam could be taken at any time and could be re-taken once. We were given two options: Basic and Advanced. I took the Advanced level and passed it.

When February rolled around I had to report to my volunteer location and arrived for my 10-2 shift (which became 10-4 on busier days). Insecure of my abilities I asked someone to let me do “Basic” returns that first day and see how it went. Surprisingly it went really well! I had the free reign to use my book guides, the IRS website and a Hotline just for VITA volunteers. My badge says Basic/ Advanced because I second-guessed my abilities, but I should have believed in the service that I was providing when my intent was to help the clients that walked through the door.

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Nearly every week, fellow volunteers would ask me if I had done this kind of volunteering before and I would say no, surprised. Even the site coordinator trusted me (with what looked like blind trust) and asked me to do Quality Reviews (AKA be the final check before the IRS approved or rejected the returns). I don’t know what prompted my peers to think so highly of me! Grateful, I have done my best to compliment my fellow preparers as much and as often as I can. If they think that I know my stuff and that I should be looked up to for my work, then any affirmation I can give will only bring them up and allow them to believe in themselves as much as they seem to believe in me. Spread the blessings you receive!

The tax season is almost over and I have encountered so many unique cases, wonderful people, people who are making it through by sheer tenacity, who mistakenly receive 1099-MISC instead of W-2s, who have their dependents claimed by other people and even an old lady who wanted to claim the 17 stray cats she feeds every month on her taxes. I could not recommend this volunteering opportunity more. Not only did I learn to prepare taxes for myself and others, but I got to meet new kinds of people who have different struggles, different dreams and who want to do the right thing by paying their taxes using ITINs, conditional SSNs or on income that should be red-flagged as poverty.

Volunteering places in your path those who inspire you to be more and to do more.

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