“Volunteering is about more than taxes. People come in expecting that just their taxes will be done, but they end up with so much more,” says MEDA Free Tax Preparation volunteer Jeremy Smith. Over the last three months, Jeremy has gingerly balanced his life as a dancer at ODC with his desire to give back as one of around 150 faithful MEDA tax volunteers.
The Mission resident knows a thing or two about taxes, having completed an impressive 58 forms this season, his volunteerism translating to many thousands of dollars being returned to the low-income community of San Francisco.
The main thing Jeremy has learned in his two straight years of volunteering during tax season is that this is definitely not a 15-minute interaction. While that refund is important — especially when it can equal 10 percent of your annual household income, as is the case for a number of MEDA tax clients — there is a vital need to educate the community on how to better their family’s overall financial health.
That starts once Jeremy has filled in the numbers and turns the computer screen, what at first is mostly a transaction pivoting to an empathetic and informative conversation. Whether filling out a 1040 EZ form or dealing with the complex ins and outs of self-employment taxes, he explains everything from available deductions and exemptions to prospective write-offs and how to adjust paycheck withholdings. The volunteer always ensures community members walk away with a jointly developed action plan for streamlining their future tax-filing process.
Additionally, a financial assessment sometimes leads to Jeremy providing a public-benefits screening.
“Giving my time to meet with a community member generates trust, so personal questions can be asked by me with confidence and answered by clients with equal assurance. Earning that trust is a rewarding part of my volunteer experience,” says Jeremy.
Interestingly, Jeremy had no experience doing taxes prior to volunteering at MEDA. His father, who resides in the Southeastern U.S., for years had volunteered doing taxes, extolling the rewards of the experience. Such altruism inspired Jeremy to follow in his dad’s footsteps. After finding MEDA via an online search, he was immediately drawn to the nonprofit, which has served the neighborhood for 45 years and is located near his Mission home. This was the perfect match, as Jeremy is currently in the Certificate Program in Accounting at University of California, Berkeley Extension.
Of note is that Jeremy is not fluent in Spanish, but this has never presented itself as a barrier in his volunteerism working with MEDA’s primarily Latino clientele. This tax season, his clients were half monolingual Spanish speakers. While Jeremy has a better grasp understanding Spanish than actually speaking it, he could always enlist help from MEDA staff or bilingual volunteers.
He was also attracted by the flexibility of his volunteer time, with MEDA working around his work and personal life schedules. For Jeremy, that meant working every Monday night at the start of the season, later adding a couple of more days per week when he saw the increased demand for free tax preparation as the deadline drew near. The indefatigable volunteer recently worked a seven-hour shift one Friday.
Because of his dedication and hard work, Jeremy was honored with this year’s ”Tax Volunteer MVP Award.” He bested some very tough competition, as there were around 150 dedicated volunteers who this year joined forces and served 4,400 community members, with around $5 million returned via free tax preparation at MEDA’s four VITA sites in San Francisco.
Explains Financial Assets Program Manager Jackie Marcelos of why Jeremy was the recipient of this honor: “Jeremy exemplifies what volunteerism is all about. He is always polite and patient, and continues to learn how to do more-advanced taxes. Without Jeremy and his fellow volunteers, MEDA could not do this work.”
When asked if he will be back for his third year of volunteerism next tax season, Jeremy answers with an emphatic, “Yes!” This dancer by vocation has definitely stepped into a new role.
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