Renee Black, 62, of Columbus, has volunteered for the local AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program for so long that she can’t recall precisely when she started. “At least 15 years ago,” the grandmother of nine guesses.
Having prepared her own taxes since college, Black, who works full-time as a computer assistant at Fort Benning, said volunteering for Tax-Aide isn’t just a hobby.
“Everybody has a knack for something they like to do, and that happens to be mine,” she said. “What makes a teacher a teacher? What makes a cook a cook? It’s a passion.”
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic cut short the work that Black and hundreds of other Tax-Aide volunteers in Georgia do each tax season. More than 120 sites shut down in mid-March—five weeks earlier than normal.
But with almost a year to adjust to coronavirus concerns, Tax-Aide has developed a variety of ways to keep volunteers and taxpayers safe, such as using virtual technology to limit the need for in-person interactions.
“Our number one priority will be safety, for our volunteers and our clients,” said Brig Simmons, 75, of Douglasville, who is the program’s Georgia state coordinator. “We will still want to do a quality job, but we’re not concerned with how many returns we prepare. Job one is safety.”
Now in its 53rd year, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide is the nation’s largest free, volunteer-based tax-preparation service. While open to anyone, it focuses on low- to moderate-income people who are 50 or older or who can’t afford professional preparation.
Last year, because of the pandemic, Tax-Aide in Georgia helped only about one-third the number of people as the 60,000 it did in 2019, when it secured more than $32 million in refunds.
Adapting to circumstances
This year, there are various options that each of Georgia’s 22 Tax-Aide districts can adopt, depending on the severity of the virus in a particular area. They include:
- In-person tax preparation, with social distancing, face coverings and sanitization of surfaces
- Car service that allows clients to stay in their vehicles while volunteers prepare returns
- Low-contact preparation that limits meetings between volunteers and taxpayers to one or two short encounters by using technology such as video or teleconference intake interviews
- Contact-free options using digitally scanned documents, video/teleconferencing and other tech solutions to prepare, finalize and file returns electronically
“No matter the situation, we’ll be helping as many people as we can,” Simmons said.
Dedric Simmons, 53, local Tax-Aide coordinator in Warner Robins, said volunteers help with a wide range of circumstances.
“We experience everything from the widow navigating the first filing without a spouse to the first-time filer.”
Debbie Wood, 61, of Centerville, has been using Tax-Aide’s services for at least a decade. She brings along her 90-year-old mother to get her taxes done, too. Wood said she appreciates that the preparers take the time to make sure she understands everything they’ve done.
“It’s like a weight taken off your chest,” she said.
Call 888-227-7669 or go online to aarp.org/findtaxhelp to find a nearby location. An appointment may be required.
Drew Jubera is a writer living in Atlanta.
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