Written by Meridith Owensby:

In my mid-twenties, I had a vague sense that there were certain skills I needed to learn to fully realize adulthood. One of those skills was how to understand taxes. As a college student I’d paid hundreds of dollars for H&R Block to tell me how much I owed to the IRS for my scholarships, and I felt certain I could do the calculations myself if someone taught me the basics.

It was on a spring day in DC that I saw the flyer advertising volunteer income tax assistance. I went to the tax clinic and had my return for the year prepared by a kindly IRS retiree, who explained each step as she did it. I asked how she had become a volunteer, and she told me about the free training offered every winter for interested parties.

The next year, I signed up for the training. I learned the difference between a deduction and a credit. I understood where withholding was listed on a W-2. The training required many hours, but after I passed the certification exam I knew I was ready to tackle simple returns for myself and others.

Over the next decade, I volunteered with the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) Program whenever I could manage. I enjoyed the comradery of the other nerdy folks who chose to prepare taxes in their spare time. I appreciated the vulnerability of the strangers who shared the financial story of their past year with me, and keeping them from paying large chunks of their anticipated refunds to for-profit tax preparers was a great feeling.

This past tax season, with the pandemic still in full swing, we knew that tax preparation would be a need for our guests and former guests. The CARES Act added unprecedented options for parents claiming the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), so volunteer Amy Vennemeyer and I decided to team up to get trained on the new developments. We encouraged one another through the many hours of online training, and by mid-January we were both certified and ready to go.

Using both our training and online software options available to us, we managed to prepare 14 returns this season, insuring our guests and former guests received refunds upwards of $60,000 total. Some plan to use that money to return to school, others to purchase more reliable vehicles, and still others to catch up on back debts. One participant told me, “I want to learn to do this myself next year.”

By filing tax returns, we have also insured there is a clear way for the additional child tax credits to come to these parents starting in July. The $250 or $300 per child monthly payments will be administered based on the payment methods and banking information from the 2020 income tax returns, so even if families didn’t technically need to file, we made sure they did. In this manner we were able to clarify who was claiming whom and what their direct deposit account numbers were. We are hopeful these payments will go more smoothly because of the front-end efforts.

I can say, helping with taxes is one of the most concrete, positive financial programs we have ever offered. If you are detail-oriented and think you’d enjoy saving low income families hundreds of dollars, I encourage you to seek out a VITA opportunity near you, either with us or in your community. Signups begin in late 2021 for the 2022 tax season, and I promise they can use your help!