Emily Grace, unlike many people, looks forward to tax season.
It’s a time when she gets to help people, said Grace, a digital media specialist at United Way of East Central Iowa.
Grace volunteers with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, a national group that provides free tax preparation help. United Way sponsors the program in Eastern Iowa.
One of the first couples Grace helped — who happened to be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary — were thrilled when they realized they’d be getting a tax refund.
“They were so thankful, and they said they were planning on doing something special for themselves,” she said.
VITA volunteers help prepare and file taxes for households earning less than $54,000 a year, often finding credits that may have otherwise been missed.
Meeting with individuals or families to complete tax forms gives volunteers like Grace the opportunity to get to know the people they’re helping, something she enjoys.
Many people, Grace said, can’t afford to pay someone to do their taxes.
“The people who come in are the people you’re walking down the street next to,” she said. “There’s more need in our community than people realize.”
Grace admitted she wasn’t a tax whiz when she started volunteering — she relied on family members for help completing her own tax returns.
“I originally asked to be a greeter, but they needed more tax preparers,” she said.
All volunteers attend training sessions, and Grace said experienced people are around when volunteers have questions.
“I’ve learned so much about things I should be doing,” she said. “I even had tips for my family.”
Grace said it’s not a given that everyone who participates in the program will get a refund, but she’s witnessed many people receive unexpected refunds.
“Some people are very worried because they think they’ll have to pay, but they may not be aware of a lot of the available programs and refunds.”
Grace knows having a stranger prepare your taxes makes some people nervous, but it’s worth it.
“One participant said they’d finally be able to repair their car,” she said. “People are so appreciative, even when the refund is small.”
People, with and without tax experience, interested in becoming a volunteer can sign up on United Way’s website — uweci.org — to be greeters, intake specialists or tax preparers.
Interacting one-on-one with people still is her favorite part of volunteering.
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“I get the most enjoyment from just chatting with people,” she said. “I want to make sure they feel like a whole person and not just someone asking for help.”