By Danica Lucker
Bill Gilliam used to see volunteers helping people with their tax returns at his mother’s senior apartment complex in Iowa and thought, Someday, I want to do that, too.
That’s how Gilliam found out about the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program, which provides free tax preparation services to individuals. He decided to volunteer for the program after he retired.
Gilliam, 70, who lives in Highlands Ranch with his wife, is making good on his word. He’s been a volunteer in Denver for three years and is among the nearly 35,000 Tax-Aide volunteers nationwide who help people with their taxes.
A former teacher, Gilliam works as a greeter at the site one day a week. He welcomes people when they arrive, answers their questions, makes sure they fill out a questionnaire and checks to see that they have all the forms and documents needed for counselors to help them complete their returns.
“For many years I was a taker in society, but now I get to give back, and it feels good helping others,” Gilliam explained.
Kathy Martz, who recruits and organizes volunteers for Tax-Aide in Colorado, said the program gets volunteers from all walks of life, including retirees. More participants are needed—no math or accounting background required.
With about 60 sites throughout the state, the program has the only official bilingual Spanish-speaking center in the country; it’s located at Centro San Juan Diego, a community resource center in Denver.
“There are many sites in the country that offer Spanish speakers, but that Denver site is the only Spanish-speaking one where English is the second language,” said Martz, 63, a former human resources officer.
She and her husband, Dave, 68, a district coordinator for Tax-Aide, have been volunteers for eight years. They learned about the program through word of mouth. This year, Colorado had more than 600 volunteers who helped complete nearly 21,000 federal returns.
“It’s an incredible way to give back to the community and support people who need it,” Martz said. “It helps a lot of different people, from low-income individuals and families to older folks to students. We get all kinds of people who come through the doors.”
Linda Strang, a volunteer for eight years, tries to ease the anxieties of taxpayers: “People sometimes think taxes are more complicated than they are. When you help people do their taxes, it takes away those fears.”
Now retired, Strang, 61, is a former IT project manager in Denver. During tax season, she volunteers a couple of days a week. “It really makes you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile at the end of the day, especially when you’re able to help people who are low-income get money back or help people catch up in filings after they’ve been behind for several years,” she said.
Training begins this month. Counselors go through a weeklong session and must pass an IRS test to become certified. Returning counselors have two days of training and retake the test each year to get recertified.
Tax counselors are trained to prepare returns but do not give tax advice. Tax-Aide helps people with relatively simple returns. The program screens for this as people come through the door.
It’s free and open to everyone. Some centers accept walk-ins; others take appointments. Most are open from early February through mid-April. Hours and days vary by center.
To learn more about Tax-Aide and becoming a volunteer, go to aarp.org/taxaide or call 888-227-7669 toll-free.
Danica Lucker is a writer living in Highlands Ranch, CO.