On a Friday afternoon in February, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteer Jody Hollander approached his office coordinator in Twin Falls, Idaho. "He usually works from 2 to 7 p.m., and he asked me if he could leave at 5 p.m. that day. Of course I told him it was OK," said Fred Ripley, who told us the story. "I then found out that he had just gotten married that afternoon and was going on a three-day honeymoon. When I asked him why he didn't just take his whole shift off, Jody said he had made a commitment to Tax-Aide and he knew how busy we are this time of year," Fred said.
Learn more about AARP Foundation Tax-Aide.
This is among the most remarkable of the many stories I've heard about outstanding volunteer dedication — no one could reasonably have expected anyone to work on his wedding day. What makes the story even better is that it probably isn't the first time this has happened: Since 1968, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers have helped nearly 50 million low- to moderate-income taxpayers across the U.S.
Right now, more than 35,000 volunteers are working in libraries, senior centers, churches and local government buildings, helping some 2.5 million people file their state and local taxes. It's not only free; Tax-Aide volunteers are also very good at what they do. Last year, they helped clients receive $1.3 billion in tax refunds and $233 million in earned income tax credits.
AARP Foundation Tax-Aide works with the IRS, which helps fund the program. Every year the volunteers receive IRS training on new tax code laws and regulations. There is a great deal of emphasis on deductions and earned income and other tax credits, because Tax-Aide volunteers want to make sure the taxpayers they help can take full advantage of them.
Bertha Alexander, a Tax-Aide volunteer for 13 years, coordinates the site at the Mt. Holeb Baptist Church Annex in northeast D.C. She quit her job at one of the big tax preparation sites to work for free at AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, and she doesn't regret it. "As far as I'm concerned, the next best thing to getting a tax refund is not owing any taxes, and I love to see both happen," Alexander says.
Another Mt. Holeb volunteer is Linda McCurdy, who has been the client facilitator for six years. "My job is to make appointments, sign people in and make sure they have all their documents. I can tell when people are upset or worried, and I help reassure them and calm them down and tell them they're in good hands," she says. Most of the clients come back year after year — Mt. Holeb is right across the street from Fort Lincoln, a community that includes subsidized senior housing.
The three tax preparation volunteers at Mt. Holeb help about 20 people during the three hours the site is open. The first week of February and the week before April 15 are the busiest, and the site extends its hours accordingly. "If people have appointments and all their documents with them, we won't close until their taxes are done," Linda says. "We like being efficient, but we like our clients even more," she says.
Even after years of filing taxes, many older people still harbor fears and misconceptions when it comes to paying them. "Taxes are very intimidating to older people and poor people," said Tax-Aide volunteer Walter Wenzel, who retired as a Department of Defense lawyer four years ago and has been volunteering ever since. The newest volunteer at Mt. Holeb, Bill McElrath, agreed. "It has nothing to do with lack of intelligence, but lack of knowledge. I try very hard to explain what I'm doing as I help them complete their return. "
While Tax-Aide volunteers usually do far more than their clients expect them to do, they are painfully aware that many other tax preparers do not. More than half of Tax-Aide's clients had previously paid a private or commercial tax preparation service $150 on average to compute and file their tax returns.
"At AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, people can feel reassured and safe that we're only going to take care of their taxes," Bertha said. 'We are not going to charge them any fees and we are not going to try to sell them anything at all."
Gerald and Audrey Larkins have been married 56 years, but they just learned about AARP Foundation Tax-Aide three years ago. "Before that, we went to a big tax preparer and it cost us $175 each time," Gerald says. "Worse, it seems like they didn't get our taxes right about half the time."
"It only takes us an hour at Tax-Aide," says Audrey, who is 77. "We get in and out fast. Everyone here is so nice — they want to make sure you understand everything. I've told all my friends to come here," she says.
Audrey and Gerald have two children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren in the area, and they see them often. But their tax refund is their own.
"Every year we get a small tax refund," says Audrey. "Even though it usually comes after Valentine's Day, we celebrate then — Gerald uses the refund to take me out to dinner. It's the only time in the year we get to have a romantic dinner with just the two of us, and we really look forward to it."
Jo Ann Jenkins is executive vice president & chief operating officer of AARP and president of AARP Foundation.