Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Lifts Families, Local Economy

Joan Miller is one of dozens of volunteers helping families complete their taxes for free through the VITA program.

Joan Miller was hesitant when the Internal Revenue Service first approached her workplace looking for tax preparation volunteers.

“Taxes were something I never had a desire to do, because I really did not have any confidence in my ability,” said Miller, Marketing and Communications Manager at BlueOx Credit Union. “But, there was a need.”

The need she saw outweighed her reluctance, and she and another co-worker stepped up. Five years later, Miller continues to step up. She’s one of several returning volunteers for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program serving Calhoun County.

VITA offers free tax help to people making $54,000 or less, people with disabilities, and taxpayers facing language barriers. Led by Goodwill Industries of Central Michigan’s Heartland in Battle Creek and Goodwill Industries of Southwestern Michigan in Kalamazoo, VITA is funded by the IRS and United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region.

Clients anywhere in the region can dial 2-1-1 to schedule appointments or find out dates and locations of walk-in clinics.

All volunteers are IRS certified through a program that takes an average of 20 hours to complete. The Calhoun County program currently has 25 volunteers, including several who are multi-lingual and help serve the Burmese and Hispanic populations.

“This year has been just amazing,” said Goodwill CMH’s Sheryl Watson, who oversees the Calhoun County program.

In 2017, volunteers completed thousands of returns throughout Calhoun and Kalamazoo counties. In Calhoun County alone, 1,463 tax returns were filed, accounting for $1,100,828 in federal refunds, and $397,890 in state refunds.

That’s a lot of money going back into the community, Miller pointed out.

“The money these individuals would otherwise spend to have their taxes prepared is big money in the context of their personal budgets,” she said. “The refunds and EITC funds that come back to them are turned over many times over within the local community because they have pent-up needs that they can finally attend to when their refund comes in. Money spent locally benefits all of us, not just the VITA clients.”

Miller is one of several preparers who have built relationships and trust within the Hispanic and Burmese communities. She volunteers primarily at the Goodwill Financial Opportunity Center, the Burma Center and the Nottawaseppi Huron Potawatomi Reservation, but there are many other sites throughout Battle Creek as well as Kalamazoo.

“Truly, it is the ability to meet a need that keeps me coming back each year,” Miller said. “Most of the individuals seeking help through VITA really don’t have extra funds to pay for tax preparation. Most barely get by, some with incredibly low household incomes. Being able to help them out by spending a little time to do their return is a big deal to them. I often feel that I have had a positive impact in some way.”

My Free Taxes

Taxpayers with a household income under $66,000 can file their federal and state tax returns for free through myfreetaxes.com, a national, United Way-funded program powered by H&R Block. It gives people options, said Watson. They can do their taxes right from home, or if they need computer access, the computer lab at Goodwill CMH is available.

For more information, visit Goodwill Industries of Central Michigan Heartland, Goodwill Industries of Southwestern Michigan or dial 2-1-1.