VITA volunteer

Economic Success Manager Joleen Cantera with a VITA volunteer, preparing taxes for a local resident. 

Alicia Quiñones’ family has lived in Calistoga for years. They love it here – but they struggle to stay afloat. Her husband works long hours in the vineyards, but with four growing kids to take care of, Alicia is busy at home. Every slow season they see their monthly income dwindle, anxiously hoping they won’t be faced with any unexpected expenses – at least until the work in the fields picks back up.

The Quiñones family tries hard every year to save a bit of money for a rainy day. But when you live paycheck to paycheck (and especially when you aren’t guaranteed the same amount every month), saving even a little can be near impossible. As a result, low-income families like the Quiñoneses are disproportionately vulnerable to emergencies, reductions in work hours, or any other kind of financial downturn. Having even a few thousand dollars in the bank can make a transformative difference for these households. It’s money that can cover an emergency expense – or money that can be invested in future opportunity: Education, a small business, or a house – all of which open the door to more economic stability. Even if your monthly paycheck is modest or unstable, a small nest egg can help lift you into economic independence.

But millions of Americans, including thousands of Napans just like the Quiñoneses, lack these kinds of reserves. They struggle to make ends meet, and are always one unexpected bill away from crisis. As a result, it’s hard to escape the cycle of poverty; it can be hard to even imagine a better future. And this cycle doesn’t just ensnare low-income adults. It holds on to their children, too: Their parents’ financial struggles will create hurdles as the Quiñones kids pursue higher education and other opportunities.

A tax-time refund can provide an invaluable boost for families like these, providing an influx of cash to help pad the annual household budget – or a seed to start growing a nest egg. But filing your taxes can be daunting even for the best of us, and paying an expert to prepare them can be cost-prohibitive. As a result, many low-income families miss out on the refunds they may have been eligible for.

To make tax preparation easier for such families, the IRS sponsors a nationwide Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program that provides free filing support to households making $55,000 a year or less. IRS-certified volunteers help these families sort through their W2s and identify every refund-generating credit or deduction they may be eligible for.

In the Bay Area, this program is coordinated by United Way, and the UpValley Family Centers has participated as a tax-preparation site in the upvalley community since 2001. Over these years, we have helped thousands of families secure over $5.4 million in state and federal refunds; last year alone, we helped 732 households file their taxes, bringing a total of $887,000 in refunds back to the local community.

The goal of UVFC’s VITA services isn’t just to help local families claim a valuable annual refund, but also to support them in saving toward financial stability and independence. In partnership with both the United Way and America Saves, UVFC’s tax preparation volunteers talk with every client about the value of saving, and encourage them to use at least a portion of their refund to start or further grow a nest egg. And many families do: In fact, America Saves has recently recognized UVFC as a “Savings Champion.”

These refunds help local families take an important step towards more economic independence, but they do more than that: Whether it’s spent now or down the line, this money boosts the local economy as a whole. It empowers low-income families as consumers, and as investors in the region’s future: when they use their nest egg to start a local business, or go to school to gain specialized skills, they create new opportunity both for themselves, their children, and their community.

The Quiñoneses have filed their taxes through our VITA services since 2007, and Alicia tells us it provides her with both relief and a sense of empowerment. Not only is the service free and close to home, but the UVFC volunteers explain everything clearly, allowing Alicia to feel in control of the process. And the refund? Alicia and her husband have finally been able to start saving for future emergencies. The rest allows them to invest, even if modestly, in the well-being of their kids: Alicia uses the refund to buy them new clothes – and last year, they were even able to afford a modest vacation to Washington State.

This year, UpValley Family Centers is providing bilingual VITA tax services at its St. Helena and Calistoga offices, as well as additional sites in both communities. Appointments are offered during evenings and Saturday mornings through April 15, 2019. Please check our website for more information, or call (707) 965-5010.

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