My sister calls me a “frustrated accountant” because, although I’m not technically an accountant like she is, I’ve always loved math and have always wanted to help people manage their finances better. I found an opportunity online to train for a local tax assistance program in the District of Columbia, and in the 2003 tax season I started volunteering with them.
I loved the other volunteers I met — they were so friendly and committed and happy to be helping others. My first volunteer site was in Chinatown in DC, and there were wonderful ladies from the Chinese church who helped as interpreters and kept things running smoothly. It could be chaotic, with people pushing to get to the front of the line, and the church ladies would just start talking and everyone would calm down and all of a sudden there’d be order. It was amazing.
After moving to a position at AARP Foundation, I wanted to start volunteering for our own Tax-Aide program. In order to be a Tax-Aide volunteer, you need to be certified at a higher level in order to do more complex tax returns, which I found a bit intimidating. But my AARP Foundation colleagues in the program wouldn’t let me back out after they learned I’d been a volunteer with another organization for so many years. They really provided support and encouragement — and a little bit of good-hearted guilt — and soon I was certified. What a pleasure it was to find that the Tax-Aide volunteers I met were just as lovely as the ones I’d worked with before.
I’ve worked with some great Tax-Aide clients over the years. One who stands out is a young mom I met my first year and kept running into even though I was volunteering at different sites. Just about every year she had something different going on. I’d give her the information she needed, and I could always be sure that the next year she’d come back fully prepared on that issue — and ready with something new for us to tackle together. My favorite thing about her is that she always listens.
I keep thinking about the fact that much of the information I give her just wouldn’t be available to someone like her, and how much of a difference the few hundred dollars it saves her can make in her life. It’s the kind of information that people with more resources probably take for granted or get as a matter of course from their accountant or other paid financial adviser. Through AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, though, this low-income, struggling, single mom is able to get the same valuable advice and guidance — for free. But it’s about so much more than that. We really have a connection. When I see her at the tax site now, we joke about her daughter “the deduction.”
Tax volunteers are some of the best people you will ever meet. Many have been doing this for years and years, and have built relationships with the people and communities they serve. Many come from professional backgrounds and spend their weekends or evenings doing this work. I know if they’re anything like me, it’s a labor of love.
For people of any age, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide is the perfect volunteer opportunity that works your mind while warming your heart.
See aarp.org/taxvolunteer to sign up to be a Tax-Aide volunteer in your community. There is a particular need for volunteers who speak Spanish, Mandarin or Cantonese.
Donna V.S. Ortega is a program manager on the Income Impact team at AARP Foundation.
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