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Volunteers help demystify taxes at UpValley Family Centers

Volunteers help demystify taxes at UpValley Family Centers

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Ray Branstetter remembers taking an aptitude test once, back in high school. Become either an engineer, it advised, or an accountant. Ray took this insight to heart, chose the former, and set course for what did indeed become a successful career in engineering. But every April, Ray realized that he actually kind of enjoyed the thing that most people dreaded: filing his taxes. It was a chance to flex that other innate muscle his aptitude test had identified: an affinity for numbers, ledgers, and the satisfaction of making them all square.

So when Ray learned one day that the UpValley Family Centers was looking for tax preparation volunteers, he jumped at the chance to exercise this muscle a little bit more. That was 14 years ago – and he’s been a mainstay in the Family Centers’ tax assistance services every year since.

UVFC’s tax service is part of a nationwide Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (or VITA) program that’s sponsored by the IRS – and as the name implies, it relies on community members who volunteer their time to help qualifying households (those who make under $65,000 a year) to file their taxes for free.

The UpValley Family Centers has been a VITA site since 2001. Every year more than 30 volunteers sign up to join our program, allowing the Family Centers to help more than 700 local households file their taxes free of charge. Because of these volunteers, our community saves thousands of dollars in tax preparation fees every year – and what’s more, they make sure that our neighbors have the opportunity to claim every credit and deduction they’re eligible for. Over the years, UVFC’s VITA team has helped bring over $6 million in state and federal tax refunds back to our community – money that has helped families save for college, get by during emergencies, cover unexpected medical expenses, and more.

Volunteers play a variety of essential roles within the VITA program. Some of them provide the friendly face that clients see when they arrive. They help each tax filer get checked in, verify their Social Security or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, and make sure the client has brought all necessary tax documents with them. Other volunteers focus on preparing the actual return: they review W2s and other income statements, calculate deductions and credits, enter it all into the IRS’ online tax filing program, and make sure all the numbers line up. And finally, one last group of volunteers acts as quality reviewers. They’re the second pair of eyes that looks at each tax return to make sure all possible credits have been claimed, all necessary forms and worksheets are included, and all the math is correct before the return is officially filed.

Each of these roles requires its own unique skill set and different levels of expertise. That means there’s a great role for everyone in the VITA program. While Ray loves the quality review process, for example, someone like Marcela Franco enjoys the initial intake process, and the chance to help clients feel at ease about the tax filing process.

Marcela is a banking professional who so enjoyed participating in her bank’s community outreach programs that she began looking for additional opportunities to volunteer her financial expertise. She discovered the UpValley Family Centers’ VITA program seven years ago – and like Ray, has returned every year since then to assist local families with their tax return.

Being a VITA volunteer takes a bit of commitment: each volunteer is expected to sign up for a weekly 3-to-4-hour evening or weekend shift for the duration of the tax season, which runs from about late January through April 15. Each volunteer must also pass a certification test from the IRS before they can work with clients – which helps ensure that every tax filer receives the highest level of accurate and expert service.

But UVFC and its regional VITA partner, United Way of the Bay Area, provide each volunteer with lots of opportunities and resources to help them pass that certification – including both online and in-person trainings. And we see a lot of volunteers returning to the program year after year, just like Ray and Marcela. They come back because they find the work both enjoyable and fulfilling. It’s satisfying to be able to offer a service for free that might otherwise cost someone hundreds of dollars, Marcela feels. “An expert preparer can help clients secure a maximum refund,” she explains, “so it can be really valuable to get that help for free.” Ray agrees: being able to claim credits and deductions can provide a huge source of economic relief for low-income people in the community.

Ray and Marcela both take pride in being able to provide clients with an accurate tax return and lots of information. And, of course, it simply feels wonderful to see people happy with their refund, and thinking about what opportunities they can create with that money. As Marcela says, it offers an opportunity for clients to invest in their children’s future – and what’s more fulfilling than that?

In addition to many dedicated volunteers who work alongside the Family Centers’ staff, the VITA program is also made possible by generous support from United Way of the Bay Area, Citi Community Development, the Napa Valley Vintners, Wells Fargo Bank, Mechanics Bank, and the Napa Valley Community Foundation. If you are interested in learning more about the VITA program and the volunteer opportunities we have available, please reach out to Joleen Cantera at jcantera@upvalleyfamilycenters.org or (707) 965-5010.

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