United Way: VITA volunteers make a difference for local families

April 14, 2019

As we head into the end of April, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that another April 15, Tax Day, has come and gone.

This is a day that causes fear and trepidation for many, but at United Way it’s a day when we celebrate the end of another VITA season.

VITA, or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, is a program that provides free tax preparation help to qualifying community members. This program is staffed almost exclusively by volunteers who work diligently to provide a better life for low- and medium-income families.

One of the best ways to help the community is to put money back in the pockets of families who are struggling to make ends meet, and our VITA volunteers do just that by helping taxpayers claim all of their tax credits and complete accurate tax returns at no cost. Each year, these volunteers help community members claim between $4.5 and $5 million in tax refund dollars. Approximately $1 million of those refunds come from the Earned Income Tax Credit, which puts money back in the refunds of working families and is one of the most effective anti-poverty measures in our tax code. These refunds are used to increase savings, pay down loans, cover home and transportation costs, and buy groceries.

VITA volunteers are incredibly dedicated to serving the community. Many of them come from educational and professional backgrounds that are not related to finance, and they willingly give their time to learn how to prepare tax returns because they want to make sure that everyone in our community can find financial stability during tax season. It’s exciting for me to see volunteers who realize they really can change lives in our community, and today I’d like to introduce you to four exemplary VITA tax preparers.

Ron Eliason, who has been a VITA volunteer for the past four years, has been a great supporter of the program. He often volunteers for multiple volunteer shifts each week, and takes care to make sure that the tax returns he prepares are completely accurate. Eliason, who was the CEO of Utah Community Credit Union before he retired and started volunteering, enjoys seeing the reaction of the families he serves.

“(The people) we help are very, very grateful for the help,” Eliason explained. “I think it’s a great program to help people that would find (taxes) extremely difficult to deal with (otherwise).”

When asked if he would recommend volunteering with VITA to others, he agreed emphatically. “(Volunteers) would find satisfaction and it would help them understand the great blessings that they have.”

Josh Afualo, another long-term volunteer, agrees. “It is a great experience. (Volunteering) will give you a new perspective, and will benefit you tremendously with whatever you do in life, whether it be professionally, academically, or personally.”

Afualo currently volunteers as a VITA site coordinator in Provo. He started volunteering three years ago in order to gain valuable career experience as he works to complete a degree in Accounting at Utah Valley University. But his favorite thing about volunteering? Making a difference for the families he serves.

He recounts an experience he had with a couple who had been having a hard time making ends meet due to some health challenges over the past few years. They weren’t sure what their options were, and Afualo was able to help them navigate the pros and cons of filing a return together or separately. “They ended up receiving much more [in their refund] than they expected, and the look on their faces was priceless.” He continues, “(I knew) that I made a difference. The reason I volunteer is to be able to help people in areas that they’re not familiar with; to be a beacon of light for them.”

Another VITA site coordinator in Provo, at BYU’s resident student VITA site, is Klarissa Kemp. This is Kemp’s fourth year volunteering and her second year as a coordinator. Although Kemp is also an accounting student, she said she really started volunteering in order to learn how to do her own taxes. But after that, she “got addicted” to VITA.

“The first return I ever prepared only had one income document on it and it took me about an hour and a half to finish. . . . I didn’t think I would ever be good at doing people’s taxes, but I just kept coming back. By the end of the season, I was one of the top volunteers (at my site). I literally fell in love with VITA! It’s such a great experience and I’ve been able to learn a great life skill in the process of helping people in my community,” Kemp said.

Helping people in the community is a common thread among VITA volunteers’ reasons for volunteering. Karine Sindt, a veteran volunteer of two years, said her favorite thing about volunteering with VITA is the people. “I love meeting people, either the people I am volunteering with or our clients. Each of us has a story to tell, a moment to share, questions asked and answered. ... It is definitely my favorite thing.”

Sindt, who has been a lifelong volunteer in her native France and other countries as she raised her children, is a wonderful example of a volunteer who isn’t afraid to give her all in order to help others. This year, she volunteered at three separate VITA sites in addition to helping support other local tax help programs. Why? “I thought it would be fun to use my (business training) and volunteer at the same time. And it is a wonderful way to offer a service to our community,” she said.

While volunteering as a tax preparer can be intimidating, each of these volunteers encourages other volunteers to join them next year. As Kemp said, “Even if you don’t feel adequate (right now), you can do it because VITA provides all the training you need to do the taxes! And even if you’re way too busy, try it out just for a few weeks and see if you don’t start to fall in love with VITA yourself.”

If you are interested in joining this great team of volunteers and helping families next tax season, please call (801) 374-2588.