by Asset Building Coach Marcail Distante
When two of Teresa Beatty’s friends started working at MEDA, they eagerly encouraged her to start volunteering with the organization. She looked into the different volunteer programs available, deciding upon the VITA program.
Working some time as an ESL teacher in France, Teresa was familiar with how difficult it can be to learn and apply a second language to everyday tasks. “I thought of the challenge I had doing my own taxes with English being my first language. I couldn’t imagine how confusing it would be to do taxes when English is not your first language, and I felt like I might be able to help people out,” says Teresa.
The San Francisco native did some more digging on the VITA program and found out that volunteering in the Mission to help people with their taxes would be an easy bus ride away from her home in the Richmond District.
It was also important to Teresa to have flexible volunteer shifts, as her vocation was working as a child care provider and bartender, while her avocation was drawing and printmaking classes. So she was relieved to learn that MEDA had tax preparation shifts available anywhere from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., offering the flexibility to coordinate her volunteer schedule around her busy life.
That’s when Teresa officially joined the MEDA family.
Teresa took the online VITA certification training from the IRS, communicated with a volunteer coordinator and showed up not knowing what exactly being a tax preparer might entail. When she arrived at MEDA’s bustling Plaza Adelante neighborhood center, she soon learned the process tax volunteers followed. “You sign in, say, ‘Hi’ to the greeter, set up at a computer station and see if you are qualified to help any of the clients waiting. From there, you go out and call their name and introduce yourself. To get started with the community member’s taxes, you ask for IDs, W-2s and any other documents and begin a new tax return,” explains Teresa of the process.
Though that process seemed simple enough, Teresa reflects that in her first few sessions with clients she showcased some slight nervousness around the possibility of incorrectly entering client information. That trepidation dissipated when Teresa soon realized that every tax return prepared for free at MEDA is reviewed by an advanced tax preparer, for quality control. Teresa says, “I sometimes switched numbers, but I always knew someone else was going to be looking at the return I had prepared, so it made me feel more confident and relaxed.”
As a volunteer tax preparer, Teresa also put her Spanish to the test. Growing up, her mom and grandmother always spoke to each other in Spanish, so the youngster had picked up on words here and there. While she felt more confident helping clients in English, Teresa decided to take the opportunity to practice her basic Spanish with some clients needing basic tax preparation. In thinking back on that experience, Teresa chuckles, admitting that some clients even told her she needed to work on her Spanish — but she appreciated their honesty. Of course, when she didn’t know how to communicate a certain idea or explanation, she would simply flag down a site coordinator fluent in Spanish to help with translation.
Throughout her volunteer work, Teresa also learned plenty more about taxes on a personal level. Sometimes when clients got less or more in refunds than they expected, she began to realize that this often correlated to the deductions the client filled out on their W-4 withholding form when starting new employment.
Though she admits that taxes have never been her favorite thing, Teresa had a great time volunteering to prepare taxes because of everything else she got out of the experience. Teresa reflects that even though she wouldn’t define herself as an expert, people were really appreciative of the work that she did, especially given how complicated some taxes are to prepare.
“There is a really good rapport among volunteers and coordinators, and there’s a sense of teamwork. You could always tell that we were working together to help the clients and help each other make sure the process is as smooth as possible,” explains Teresa.
By the end of tax season, Teresa had prepared 20 tax returns for free for community members, returning about $40,000 to the low-income, immigrant community of San Francisco. In reflecting on that impact, Teresa states, “I’m really glad I was able to help people to get their money back. It’s cool to see the impact just one person can have.”
While she’ll need to see if her schedule permits her to volunteer preparing taxes next season, one thing is certain: Teresa had fun with the tax volunteers and staff last season, and learned much in the process.
As words of advice to potential or future volunteers, Teresa shares, “If you have the inclination to volunteer in this capacity, go for it. There is always room for people to be a part of the tax team and, although it’s a bit stressful at times, it was super worthwhile … and I’m happy I did it.”
Would you like to join MEDA’s tax volunteers with a schedule that works for your multiple commitments?
Please contact Asset Building Coach Marcail Distante: (415) 282-3334 ext. 132; firstname.lastname@example.org.