Janelle Riedl is deeply integrated into her community of Prescott, Arizona, where she’s lived for 25 years. “My husband says we can’t go anywhere without talking to 15 people,” she admits, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Janelle has been a volunteer tax preparer with AARP Foundation Tax-Aide for 39 tax seasons in total — more than enough time to get to know the taxpayers who come to her for help. “You hear about the birth of all the kids, and you hear about the death of a spouse, and the loss of a child. When you see these people year after year after year, you get to know them.”
Janelle worked at the IRS for a time while living in New Orleans. That’s where she learned about Tax-Aide, a program that provides tax preparation help to anyone, free of charge, with a special focus on taxpayers who are over 50 and have low to moderate income. She’s currently the District Coordinator for District 3 in Prescott, managing 62 volunteers, many of whom have participated in the program for decades. Together, they prepare about 5,000 returns a year — a number that actually increased in 2021 despite coronavirus restrictions.
Her team works out of a suite in a local mall, the space donated as an in-kind exchange for the foot traffic the program brings into the stores. Internet and phone service, and even tax preparation and training software, are all donated by the community. In the early days of the pandemic, after an initial shutdown, Janelle was able to reopen the site safely thanks to community donations of PPE products, easy-to-clean furnishings and, she says, “enough hand sanitizer to fill a bathtub.”
A Community Partnership
Although taxes are the program’s main focus, Janelle has found a way to expand and streamline community services, allowing them to reach as many people as possible.
“We have a partnership going in our community,” she says. “Our program works with the volunteer program at the local hospital, and we give out the magnetic medical records that you put on your refrigerator. They provide them to us, and then we provide them to the community.” A local organization, Real Hope, brings food boxes to the Tax-Aide site and distributes them to food-insecure community members who are there to get help with their taxes.
During tax season, Janelle and her team open early on certain days to residents of assisted living facilities in town. “It’s a community effort,” says Janelle. “We all kind of try to help out our seniors and to help out our low-income people who are struggling.”
Janelle sees that struggle daily through her work. “We have people who worry about how they’re going to pay their rent, how they’re going to pay for food, get the medical care that they need,” she says. “You can tell the difference between the ones who worry about it versus those who have the means not to; you can tell the difference in their demeanor. You can hear it in their voice. You sit at home every evening being extremely humbled for what you have. Because you see so many that you just don’t know how they make it.”
Going Above and Beyond
Staying on top of their training allows Tax-Aide volunteers to deliver good news, however. “Everybody in our office is advanced certified. We work with our volunteers to make sure that they get trained on all the new tax law,” Janelle explains, adding, “We have people who burst into tears when they find that they get a refund that they weren’t anticipating. They’re thrilled that we had the knowledge, because if they’d done it on their own, they would not have known that.”
She says Tax-Aide is “hands down the best thing out there” for seniors and people with low income in her area because of the way the program works cooperatively with other organizations. The city, it seems, agrees. Prescott’s mayor declared August 24, 2021, to be AARP Foundation Tax-Aide Appreciation Day, recognizing Janelle and her volunteers for “providing free services annually and going above and beyond.”
About the relationships she’s built with taxpayers over the years, Janelle says, “They don’t forget you. They don’t forget what you did for them, and they’ll come up and say, ‘I can’t tell you what this program means to me. I’m not capable of doing it, but I’m so appreciative that you do'."
Read more stories about how our programs have helped people find hope, and about the volunteers who give so much of themselves to help others.