As the Spring semester starts, so does another tax season. Every year billions of tax dollars go unclaimed and United Way Suncoast is on a mission to help low-to-moderate income households claim what is theirs. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, one of United Way’s programs, offers free annual tax preparation services to render financial stability into these households.
United Way was founded in 1887 in Denver, Colo. by five people—a Denver woman, a priest, two ministers and a rabbi—who wanted to make the city a more equitable place. This idea ultimately led to the nation’s first united campaign which benefited 10 local health and welfare agencies. They created an organization that would expand to collect funds for local charities, coordinate relief services, counsel and refer clients to cooperating agencies and make emergency assistance grants for cases that could not be referred. That year, Denver raised $21,700 for the project, thereby creating a movement that would become United Way.
Today, United Way is a worldwide nonprofit organization that fights for health, education and financial stability. Nationally, United Way of America works with over 1,000 communities, including United Way Suncoast. Five counties are represented by United Way Suncoast: DeSoto, Manatee, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota.
United Way Suncoast and United Way of America offer precise tax services. United Way of America has a 94 percent accuracy rate of all tax returns filed and the Suncoast branch boasts one of 96 percent. Aside from aiming to break the cycle of generational poverty with the aid of a tax refund, United Way Suncoast has other programs that are geared more towards assisting with child development, creating education opportunities to the regions’ youth and offering aid to provide financial stability—all of which are part of their Five-Year Strategic Plan.
In 2014, United Way Suncoast announced its Five-Year Strategic Plan with a mission of stopping the recurrence of generational poverty through a variety of programs that target three priority areas: early literacy, youth success and financial stability. However, in regards to financial stability, VITA is not the only program.
“Within our financial stability work, I’m proud to work on a financial coaching program,” Financial Stability Initiatives Specialist Nichole Pena stated in an email interview. “This program matches participants with trained volunteer coaches to help them improve their financial knowledge and capability. In the past, the program has helped individuals who were at risk of homelessness develop a plan and take actions to move from transitional housing into their own places.”
The financial coaching program helped these individuals by showing them how to take control of their finances, reduce their debt and develop emergency savings plans. These services can also be shown and offered at VITA sites as volunteers assist clients.
VITA’s high accuracy rates stem from the strict rules that volunteers follow to become certified tax preparers. There is also a policy to ensure that every tax return filed is quality reviewed.
“Every return completed is then rechecked by a quality reviewer, an experienced volunteer who ensures that everything was done correctly,” Pena said. “Our 96 percent accuracy rate is higher than any other group, including paid preparers.”
To become certified, volunteers must attend an orientation and go through a two-day training program. The rapid approach to training comes from the caution that some volunteers may have packed schedules so creating an advanced program would get more volunteers certified.
“The majority of our volunteers are students, and many are doing it for a college credit,” Senior Manager of United Way Suncoast Margarita Perez said. “A lot of the students we have are very intimidated with the fact that they’re going to be preparing a tax return to our clientele.”
However, Perez believes that feelings of jitteriness should not keep anyone, especially college students, from doing something that is meaningful for the community.
Several students from New College are currently involved, one of whom is third-year Agnes Bartha.
“I had people of all races and ethnicities come in so it was cool to be able to get to know their stories and how I can help them,” Bartha said. “So far I’ve only [volunteered] once and I had a great experience.”
According to Pena, being a tax preparer for United Way Suncoast makes a difference for everyone.
“Volunteering as a tax preparer is a win-win,” Pena said. “When you participate in the VITA program, you help to bring millions of dollars back to the community in refunds and tax prep fees saved. […] Not only are you helping the community, but you help yourself gain experience working with a diverse population of people, developing interpersonal communication, organizational, and problem-solving skills. These skills are readily transferable to any career you pursue.”
Originally, VITA was a program to be provided through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), but because some people mistrust the IRS and government programs, the free tax preparation that the IRS offered was not being used by a large portion of communities.
“So what the IRS does is they look for a friendly partner, one that’s trusted by the community, and then they fund us to do their program,” Perez said.
Most of the clientele that come across the VITA program have unique and personal stories that show the need for the program. For instance, Debbie, a grandmother who is raising her granddaughter Sireinique was invited to a year-end-event hosted by United Way Suncoast to share her story. Debbie has been raising Sireinique for 12 years due to the struggles she saw her daughter face as a young parent; however, with VITA, Debbie never has to worry about paying a $300 preparation fee, an amount other tax preparation services have asked for in the past. Now, Debbie trusts the IRS-certified volunteers at VITA and has benefited from their services for the last six years.
“That money [from the tax refund] helps a parent pay for summer child care, a new college student pays for books for classes next semester and a young adult pays the security deposit for their own apartment,” Pena said.
In fact, over 60 percent of VITA’s clientele are returning clients and according to Perez a lot of clients go to VITA to correct a return that was incorrectly done elsewhere.
“A lot of times [people] go to predatory lenders and their focus is on getting you the most schedules and forms on your behalf to get a better split,” Perez said. “So we want to make sure that it’s not the amount of tax refund you get it’s just to make sure that return is done accurately.”
United Way Suncoast is always welcoming volunteers into their programs and students interested in the VITA program. If you are interested in volunteering, contact them on their website or send an email to Perez (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Pena (email@example.com) to learn more.