On a windy Tuesday evening in early March, the Media Center at Stuarts Draft High School hummed with the conversations between volunteers and clients at Valley VITA’s free tax preparation site. Among the clients were a few elderly, young singles, extended families. immigrants, and young parents with an only child.
All had come that evening with their financial documents in hand to take advantage of free tax preparation by IRS certified volunteers through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Thanks to the program, a service of the Community Action Partnership of Staunton, Augusta, and Waynesboro, clients can ensure they get their maximum refund and claim the credits due them.
This has been a record setting season for Valley VITA, now in its fifth year of providing free preparation of federal and state tax returns to households making less than $53,000 a year. The program was created specifically to help individuals and families claim their Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credits.
VITA volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and have different reasons for wanting to participate. This particular evening, Virginia Community Action Partnership Deputy Director Carolyn Spohrer chatted with volunteers before the site opened. “Are you a business professor?” she asked Nadine Gergel-Hackett, who teaches at Mary Baldwin College.
“No,” Gergel-Hackett replied, “I teach physics. I’m here because I like taxes.”
Other volunteers are looking for a way to give back to the community, and students in Professor Janet Ewing’s business classes at Mary Baldwin volunteer as part of their class requirements.
Snow days have made open days even busier at the sites, but clients and volunteers have been understanding and flexible with rescheduling appointments missed due to weather. Despite the closures, volunteers still managed to 186 returns in the first three weeks of tax season, more than triple the total number of returns prepared during their entire first season in 2010-11. So far this season, volunteers have saved clients more than $66,000 in preparation fees and helped them claim over hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state refunds. This money comes back to the local economy to directly impact the community.
This season has been very different from past years due to the Affordable Care Act. Regulations included in the ACA have extended the amount of time it takes volunteers to prepare a return. However, much of this time is spent educating taxpayers on what the ACA means for them.
This year, advocates from Enroll Virginia are joining forces with VITA to offer clients information about the Healthcare Marketplace and options for those who may fall into the gap between Medicaid and the Marketplace. At each of the four sites, a representative from Enroll Virginia is available to counsel taxpayers on what may be best for them in securing health care coverage.
Many clients express how much they are looking forward to the benefits of their return. Clients report that they use their return to pay medical bills and credit card balances, save for a home or college, buy a savings bond (on site) or invest in a matched savings account through the Staunton Creative Community Fund.
With so many benefits and resources available to clients, Valley VITA continues to be a vital service in helping boost the economic security of the community. For more information, call Valley VITA at 540-221-1654 or visit www.facebook.com/ValleyVITA