The Vital ‘VITA’: Mesa, AZ
Since 2019, members of the Sri Sathya Sai Center of Mesa, AZ, in association with ‘A New Leaf’, a non-profit organization, have volunteered in a unique and essential service program, sponsored by IRS, called VITA, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. The program offers free tax preparation assistance to people who make $57,000 or less, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English-speaking taxpayers who need help with their tax returns.
Sai Center members can volunteer for VITA on a weekly basis from November through April every year. To become a trusted resource for preparing tax returns, volunteers have to undergo rigorous tax law training and are certified at the ‘Advanced level’ of IRS Standards. With 20% of taxpayers even unaware of their eligible Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other available credits, this program potentially puts thousands of dollars back into the pockets of working families.
VITA sites are well-organized; volunteers are grouped in various teams for initial screening, and preparing basic or advanced 1040 tax returns & schedules. Every tax return prepared by a Tax Preparer is reviewed by another more qualified volunteer. During the 2019-20 tax season, more than 3,700 households and individuals from West Valley received an estimated 6 million dollars in Federal & State tax refunds, and saved over an estimated $800,000 in tax preparation fees. For the 2020 tax season, contactless tax preparation was organized at multiple locations with COVID-19 protocols. The tax payers drop ped off their tax return documents for remote tax preparation and then set a time for the pick-up appointment.
The VITA program is not only beneficial to the community, but also a great learning opportunity for the volunteers involved. A two-year VITA veteran commented, "We get hands-on experience while we prepare taxes in real life. I volunteer at multiple sites. People show up with several documents, and we do the initial screening and make sure it is right. As a volunteer, my goal is to help them obtain every credit they are entitled to and place vitally needed money in their pockets. I feel more accountable, and look forward to volunteering each year.” Another volunteer added, "Being a homemaker, I get the opportunity to interact with diverse people such as the elderly, young students, and people living solely on social security benefits. Volunteering in this activity has helped me learn the importance of empathy and listening, and how speaking lovingly matters.”
An elderly beneficiary who has been doing her taxes at the VITA site for four years expressed, “I am happy as the volunteers are attentive, help me understand the tax return preparation, and are punctual with appointments. I am really grateful.” Another recipient of VITA claims it puts her mind at ease during these challenging times. “I didn’t even know it was possible to receive more money through my taxes as a retired educator until VITA showed me the way. This service made all the difference for me, as over the years I struggled to do my own taxes.” In the end, VITA connects people heart to heart, reminding us that we are more alike than different. It is an example of people caring for people and shows humanity at its best.