Photo by Andrew Spear
Wayne Yingling has an aptitude for numbers. So when he searched for a volunteer job after retiring in 2001, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide seemed like a good fit.
Today, Yingling, 68, is still helping Ohioans prepare and file their taxes as one of about 1,600 Tax-Aide volunteers in the state.
"It's quite rewarding to help people who don't know how to do their taxes or feel nervous about it," said Yingling, of Jackson Township, who worked as a Goodyear plant manager. "And people really appreciate that it's free."
Started in 1968, Tax-Aide is a nationwide program provided in cooperation with the Internal Revenue Service. Today, over 35,000 trained volunteers help more than 2.6 million taxpayers file their taxes annually. Tax-Aide's target audience is low- and moderate-income people 60 and older.
In Ohio, volunteers work at more than 300 sites, from senior and community centers to libraries and churches, from February through mid-April.
As the 2012 tax season approaches, the program is looking to recruit 250 more volunteers.
Bruce Gelsinger, volunteer coordinator for the program's Great Lakes region, which includes Ohio, said word of mouth keeps the program growing. In the past five years, the number of federal returns handled by Ohio Tax-Aide volunteers has increased from nearly 60,000 to about 72,000.
"Once people come in and see us, they go home and tell their friends, their neighbors, and their family members," said Gelsinger, 65, of Dublin, just outside Columbus. "So we're always looking for new volunteers. Anyone who has an interest in helping taxpayers can volunteer. You don't need a tax background."
Training typically involves five days of classwork plus books designed for self-study. Volunteers learn how to use tax preparation software. At the end of training, they must pass an IRS-designed certification test before they can work as tax counselors.
As part of the training, volunteers learn about the latest changes in tax law and procedures. For example, starting in 2012, as part of its efforts to boost electronic filing and save money, Ohio will no longer mail income tax booklets unless taxpayers specifically request them.
Ohio Tax-Aide volunteers are moving in this direction, too. Last year, 93 percent of returns they prepared were electronically filed.
Volunteers typically work at least one day a week during tax season, Gelsinger said.
Scott Dickson, 65, of Westerville, started volunteering in 2000 after he retired from a computer systems management job at an insurance company. He likens the work to doing a crossword puzzle: a way to keep his brain active.
Dickson worked part-time for a tax preparation agency years ago but didn't care for the quick in-and-out nature of the work. With Tax-Aide, there's time to work with people and figure out problems, he said. Plus, Dickson said, the work coincides with dreary weather months in Ohio when spending time inside isn't a bad thing.
Don't have to be an expert
JoAnne Pedersen, 56, of Evendale, started volunteering last year after retiring from her engineering consulting business.
She pointed out that you don't have to be a tax or computer whiz to volunteer. There are always people at the Tax-Aide sites with more experience who can help with tricky questions.
Yingling agreed. Some of the volunteers at sites where he's worked have tax backgrounds. Others worked as teachers, nurses and office workers.
Yingling, Dickson and Pedersen plan to volunteer again this year.
"No question about it. It was a phenomenal experience," Pedersen said. "People come in who don't have money to hire an accountant or tax agency or don't have the mental capacity they used to.
"They'll say they don't know what they would have done without you," Pedersen said. "You just go home at the end of the day with a really good feeling."
To learn more about volunteering, call 1-866-389-5653 ext. 1531 toll-free or go to the website.
Also of interest: Frequently asked federal tax questions. >>
Sarah Hollander is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.