Volunteering comes in many forms. Some folks enjoy working with children and donate their time at schools or churches. Others volunteer their time at nearby food pantries and in effort to feed the hungry. One unique opportunity credit unions have embraced, speaks to those that are good with numbers, decent with computers, and, most importantly, want to help others by working with families and individuals directly.
Since 1971 volunteers across the U.S. have helped others with free tax preparation, donating a few months of their time with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. These volunteers provide free tax preparation and filing services through credit unions and other organizations to those with low-to-moderate-incomes. Montana Credit Unions for Community Development(www.montanacreditunions.coop) is the charitable arm of the Montana Credit Union Network and leads a statewide partnership that gives the state’s credit unions an opportunity to set up (and administer) VITA sites and work with local organizations that provide direct services in their communities. That partnership, funded in part with an Internal Revenue Service grant, brings this important service to some of our state’s more rural areas that otherwise would go without. Last year, volunteers with the Montana VITA Partnership (MVP) completed 6,600 tax returns and returned about $6 million in federal refunds back into the pockets of residents.
Carin McClain oversees VITA through Montana’s credit unions, and said this free service in invaluable because it provides a necessary service helping modest-earning citizens maximize their returns. She credits the commitment of both credit unions and volunteers to the program’s success.
Most volunteers say it’s less about financial or tax knowledge and more about having the time and inclination to help others. Clay Gohr is a volunteer tax preparer at SEG Federal Credit Union in Laurel, Montana. He said volunteering with VITA just takes somebody who is willing to help someone else and can commit to the time. Gohr finds being a VITA volunteer especially rewarding, because people have such a tenuous relationship when it comes to taxes.
“The thing about taxes is everyone is intimidated by the IRS and afraid to make mistakes,” he said, adding that having a friendly volunteer assisting can be comforting.
“It’s not like [volunteers] are accountants — it’s just math, adding and subtracting — most of our stuff is pretty simple,” Gohr said. “We have so much help and support and the courses and training you receive give you a good idea of what’s going on. You are never in a position where you have to make a decision by yourself.”
Park Side Credit Union hosts a VITA site at their branch in Whitefish, Montana, and Rob Lefkowicz, the credit union’s Chief Operations Officer, says he loves the fact that volunteers are the bread and butter of the program.
“Most of us pay someone else to do our taxes, but the volunteers do it with VITA and they are special people for sure,” Lefkowicz said.
Some VITA sites are completely run by volunteers and others have a mix of volunteers and credit union staff, and such is the case in Circle at McCone County Federal Credit Union.
Manager Emily Guldborg said everyone at the credit union is wildly supportive of the program because it makes staff more knowledgeable about tax issues. This not only benefits the taxpayer using the VITA program and the community in general but also members of the credit union.
Volunteer training has started in Montana, and serving folks across more than 147,000 square miles is no small feat. Year after year we are touched by the commitment from humble, hard-working volunteers at the credit unions and other host sites that make this program a success and it’s inspiring to see the credit union philosophy of “people helping people” in action.
For more information visit www.montanafreefile.org