by Asset Building Coach Marcail Distante
When Sander Bruens arrived in the U.S. from Ireland, he was ready to dive into a new culture, and career. What enticed him to head to the San Francisco Bay Area was a web developer position at tech giant Google, where he would be tasked with designing software tools to be used by the Legal Online Operations team.
With a comprehensive background in international law, cybersecurity and economics, detail-oriented work was nothing new to him; however, with tax season just a few months away, Sander realized he was unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the American tax system … and longed for answers.
As a lifelong learner, Sander desired volunteer opportunities that would equip him with a skillset to understand U.S. tax law and basic tax preparation. He also sought out an opportunity that would let him build upon his strength of being detailed-oriented, since he’d honed those skills in legal offices and at Google throughout his career.
With a busy new job, he had limited free time to volunteer and needed flexibility and convenience at the core of this new experience. That’s why Sander was drawn to MEDA, which offered ample volunteer shifts in the evenings, anywhere from 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Additionally, MEDA offered VITA facilities at various tax preparation locations around San Francisco.
To take the first steps to becoming a volunteer, Sander completed a training by the IRS to get a baseline of knowledge about taxes. With this new foundation of information, he signed up for a tax shift at MEDA’s Otis Street location to see what it actually meant to be a tax preparer.
To learn more about the tax process, Sander shadowed some volunteers and asked questions. He soon learned that helping someone get a refund was easy. Explains Sander of the process, “It was about finding a space in the computer lab, logging in, going outside to get the next client, confirming their documents and doing some data entry. From there, someone does a ‘quality review’ and looks it over, you print their taxes and we’re done!”
When he felt ready to give it a whirl with his first tax client, Sander felt equally nervous and excited. He quickly realized, however, that he was not expected to be an expert — and that he had a strong support system in place. If he ever was unsure of the answer to a client’s question, he would flag down an experienced tax-preparer, plus he knew that each and every return prepared would undergo that “quality review.” Says Sander, “I realized that it’s hard to make mistakes, since there’s a process in place, and there’s always assistance and supervision.”
After a couple weeks of growing, learning and asking questions, Sander had gained the confidence he needed, as he was getting into the groove at MEDA. With the basics of tax preparation down, Sander wanted to take his interactions with clients to the next level.
Sander has always had an interest in personal finance and finds it empowering to learn about a new financial process, or organize his own financial goals. Feeling at ease with the details of tax-data entry, Sander began to take time to answer any questions clients had in relation to their long-term goals. His hope? Information will strengthen clients in the future, way beyond their one-on-one tax session.
Sander understands that a goal as large as buying a house can start with one simple step of understanding how to read a pay stub.
“When people ask questions and start understanding how the tax system works, it’s very rewarding. You realize it’s not just understanding a tax refund, it’s hopefully going to carry forward in one way or another to help them in the future to understand how withholding works, why they get refunds, why they owe and how to read pay stubs,” states Sander.
As he gets to know clients and their goals, Sander further strengthens community members by referring them to MEDA’s weekly Welcome Orientations to learn about the agency’s other free services. Sander leverages tax sessions to connect clients to a wraparound system of support running the gamut from credit coaching to starting a new business to preparing to be a homeowner.
As an immigrant himself, Sander knows that taking the first step to understanding a financial process, such as the U.S. tax system, can be challenging. In reflecting on his own journey to becoming a tax preparer, Sander relays, “Making any change in life starts in the same way you tackle seeking out information. It’s a scale that comes down to confidence.” And learning about taxes is just the first step.
For Sander, tax sessions are mutually beneficial for the client and for himself. In addition to helping clients get refunds and empowering them with knowledge, he has built confidence interacting with many different people with diverse backgrounds, personalities and tax situations.
As a software engineer at Google, Sander also looks forward to the meaningful face-to-face interactions with clients as a break from his computer-heavy, day-to-day job. After volunteering to prepare taxes two to three times a week from January through April of 2019, Sander has prepared 44 tax returns, giving back about $88,000 back to the low-income Mission community.
Now that’s true impact.
Would you like to use some of the skills you’ve gained at work to give back to the community?
Please contact Asset Building Coach Marcail Distante: (415) 282-3334 ext. 132; firstname.lastname@example.org.