By Verónica Zaragovia
Jesus Villalobos didn’t expect to spend more than 10 years volunteering after his retirement—but he’s not surprised, either. He’s known the importance of lending a hand his entire life.
“I grew up in an orphanage,” said Villalobos, 81, “and I know people need help.”
Speaking English and Spanish, he’s helped dozens of people since 2003 as a regional supervisor in El Paso for the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program.
Founded in 1968 by four volunteers, Tax-Aide is the nation’s largest free, volunteer-run tax assistance and preparation program. Today, the program has more than 35,000 volunteers nationwide working at more than 5,000 Tax-Aide sites. In Texas, roughly 2,000 volunteers work at the state’s 300 sites. This coming tax-preparation season they’ll work from Feb. 1 to April 15.
“I felt the satisfaction of helping people in need who couldn’t afford it and I could offer to do it for free,” Villalobos said. He even gave out his phone number so people he’d helped could reach him anytime.
Carmen Salloum, 74, who worked as a Tax-Aide coordinator last year, said she hopes to see more people like Villalobos volunteering this tax season.
“Sometimes we get couples where one speaks English but the spouse doesn’t, so naturally they want us to explain what we’re doing in Spanish,” Salloum said. Last tax season she helped people at a senior center in El Paso. She estimated that about 80 percent of people going there for their tax preparation needed help in Spanish.
“It’s very satisfying for us to be able to communicate with them in the language that they prefer so that they do understand,” she added.
Ron Craig, who oversees the Tax-Aide program in Texas, points to the state’s changing demographics to explain why he too sees the need for bilingual volunteers.
Texas has about 10 million Latinos, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Harris County has the nation’s second largest population of Latinos, after Los Angeles County in California.
Craig, 78, a former electrical engineer, volunteers just north of Houston, in The Woodlands. He’s been working with the Tax-Aide program for about 20 years. Regardless of how often he’s prepared taxes, he must get recertified each tax season.
Tax-Aide volunteers are trained and IRS-certified every year, so they know about the latest changes and additions to the U.S. tax code. Then they work at locations across the state, including libraries, community and senior centers, and places of worship.
Tax-Aide coordinators look over a tax preparer’s work before the final filing is submitted to the IRS.
The Affordable Care Act has added complexities to tax law, which Tax-Aide volunteers are trained to handle. Marriage, divorce and retirement can have a big impact on a person’s tax filing, too.
The important documents that people should bring with them include last year’s tax return, a Social Security card, proof of income, a list of medical expenses and a photo identification issued by a state, federal or tribal agency.
Craig has helped people who tell him that they can’t afford expensive tax-preparation services.
“For lower- and middle-class people, that’s major,” he said, adding that they are often struggling just to pay for medicine and food.
Marta Reyes is a volunteer in El Paso. Reyes, who’s retired, has been a Tax-Aide volunteer for four years. The 2016 tax season will be her fifth year. She says she sees a lot of people coming in for tax help, but not enough volunteers.
“What’s sad is that we don’t have enough volunteers. Most centers will take 40 to 50 people for the day, depending on the number of volunteers” Reyes said. “There’s a cut off and a lot of people are sent away because we just can’t take them.”
She says explaining in Spanish helps people understand what’s being done by the Tax-Aide volunteer and why. “Bilingual volunteers would be great, but really any volunteers, because really there’s a need,” Reyes said. “There’s a big need.”
The Tax-Aide program is open to anyone, although it serves mostly those who are 60 or older, and low- to lower-middle-income filers. It does not handle complex returns.
Anyone interested in volunteering must apply by Jan. 1. Volunteers can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free 888-687-2277 (English) or 877-627-3350 (Spanish). Volunteers train for a little less than a week in January.
“The thing that I like to emphasize is that this is the most rewarding thing you can do,” Craig said. “We have a great number of people who’ve been in the program 30-plus years. Once you get in, it just gets you.”
Verónica Zaragovia is a writer formerly living in Austin, Texas