One Return At A Time

Charlie Heinz has helped prepare state and federal tax returns for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, better known as VITA, for the past nine years.

“By volunteering in the VITA program, I’m able to help local people navigate the often complicated process of filing their income tax returns and to take advantage of the many tax breaks they are owed through the Earned Income Tax Credit and other benefits,” Heinz said.

For more than a decade, the VITA program has helped thousands of local taxpayers collect millions of dollars in income tax refunds. It’s sponsored each year by the Chautauqua County Earned Income Tax Credit Coalition. Throughout the tax season, IRS-certified volunteers prepare returns for income-eligible residents, helping them qualify for credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit. But it’s not just families that benefit from the program. Last year, $700,000 was returned to the Jamestown area because of the VITA program. Rose Ann Lancione is the VITA coordinator for United Way of Southern Chautauqua County.

“The program’s success is due to the tremendous work of our volunteers,” Lancione said. “These men and women give up countless hours to help file returns for free starting in January, and going right up until the tax deadline on April 15. However, it is extremely rewarding work. The refunds returned to our clients can change their lives. It helps them with vehicle repairs, down payment for a new home, or simply saving for a rainy day.”

United Way of Southern Chautauqua County helps recruit and train the volunteers, and establishes tax preparation sites for income-eligible residents. Any family earning less than $50,000 per year can qualify to have their taxes prepared by the VITA volunteers.

“The word continues getting out about this program, and every year the numbers grow,” Lancione said. “Last year we filed 381 tax returns. That requires a lot of volunteers to make it happen.”

Volunteers like Heinz.

“For the most part, our team has been together for a long time,” Heinz said. “We really enjoy working together and helping each other prepare tax returns. We have fun doing it and accomplish something very worthwhile.”

It’s this attitude of giving that Lancione hopes will catch fire with volunteer prospects this fall, as she once again looks to find the help needed to administer the popular VITA program.

“We are only as effective as the number of volunteers we can recruit,” Lancione said. “There’s some training and certification required but this is something most people who’ve been preparing their own taxes for years could do. And if you enjoy meeting and helping people, then this is the perfect volunteer opportunity for you.”

Those interested in helping with the VITA program, which begins in January, should contact United Way at 483-1561 or by emailing ralancione@gmail.com. Study sessions will be held in October and November to help new volunteers get up-to-speed.

“We always need tax preparers, which require some training, but we also need volunteers to help with in-take at the sites, and that doesn’t require any training,” Lancione said “Whatever your talent or passion, we could use your help.”

For Heinz, helping out is a no-brainer.

“I see this as a tremendous opportunity,” Heinz said. “I really enjoy visiting with the people I’m helping, and I get to share in their joy when I can find them some extra money. We help many of the same people year after year.”

The VITA program is one of several community services supported by the 2013 United Way Campaign. When you give to the campaign, you’re helping to change lives, one tax return at a time.