UpValley Family Centers' 36 VITA tax preparers complete 700 returns

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UpValley Family Centers’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program reached record numbers this year thanks to 36 committed and trained volunteers. The volunteers and bilingual staff worked this tax season to complete more than 700 tax returns so far — generating a preliminary estimated $684,000 in refunds.

Volunteer tax preparer Ray Branstetter

Ray Branstetter, retired engineer who lives in Calistoga, has been supporting Calistoga VITA efforts for 13 years, the longest of any VITA volunteer. He is with two VITA clients, Valeria Lopez and Erica Manriquez.

“There is no question, our dedicated volunteers make a huge difference in our ability to provide services to our clients,” said Jenny Ocón, executive director of the UpValley Family Centers. “They bring a variety of skills, current and former career experiences and actively work alongside our staff to make a big impact in the lives of working families and seniors living on fixed incomes. We couldn’t do it without their kind hearts and commitment. And we all have fun along the way.”

Since 2010, the UpValley VITA Program has generated more than $5.5 million in refunds to households earning less than $54,000 per year thanks to volunteers and staff offering the free program in Calistoga and St. Helena. Most of the work is done between January and April, though the UpValley Family Centers offers this service year round. It is the only VITA site in Napa County to do so.

UpValley Family Centers' VITA volunteers

Many of the VITA volunteers, coordinated by the UpValley Family Centers, gathered in Calistoga recently for a celebration and for photos. They are, top row, from left, Lourdes Gonzalez, Marcela Franco, Irene Pena and her daughter, Alexandra, Ray Branstetter, Norma Godinez, Norma Ferriz and Marycruz Garcia. On the bottom step are Katya Orozco and Joleen Cantera. Each of the volunteers is holding a sign of the program's sponsors.

Calistogan Ray Branstetter has been a Calistoga VITA volunteer for 13 years, the longest of any VITA member. In addition to loving “cleaning up tax issues for the families,” he said, “all the staff are so happy here and Norma Godinez, the program coordinator, is really good. It’s why I keep coming back.” He is a retired engineer.

Six months ago, Tim Knutson retired as Chevron Senior Counsel and was looking for volunteer opportunities. He connected with Norma Ferriz, St. Helena’s VITA program manager. “I got a lot out of helping folks and it opened my eyes to the challenges they are facing. I very much enjoyed working with UpValley Family Centers and its value to the community is obvious. I would be happy to do whatever I can in the future.”

Marcela Franco of Mechanics Bank has volunteered in both the St. Helena and Calistoga offices for years. Being bilingual, Franco has been integral to helping the clients. “I think the highlight each year is seeing their happiness when I tell them they are getting a refund,” she said.

Emily Armstead

Emily Armstead is a production financial analyst at Trinchero Family Estates, who is a newbie VITA volunteer.

VITA volunteer Emily Armstead grew up in a St. Helena family that believes in community service. She’s a newbie VITA volunteer and plans to come back next year. At 27, she’s been working at Trinchero Family Estates for three years and loves it.

“I like solving problems and when my friend (UVFC Board member Michael Caldarola – also a VITA volunteer) mentioned the need, it seemed like a great fit,” Armstead said. “The 20-hour IRS training was hard to fit in my workweek but I’m lucky. My colleagues at Trinchero Family Estates were flexible and encouraging.”

Ocon said the UpValley Family Centers relies on the goodwill of volunteers to expand community impact – in the VITA Program and more. More than 100 volunteers, from retired and current local corporate executives to high school and college students, apply their skills and passion to help others via citizenship classes, community resource events, holiday giving programs, and tutoring.

VITA is generously sponsored by Citibank, Auction Napa Valley/Napa Valley Vintners, Mechanics Bank, the Napa Valley Community Foundation and United Way Bay Area and many individual donors.

For more information on UVFC volunteer opportunities contact Carolyn Dunn cdunn@upvalleyfamilycenters.org or 965-5010.

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