Last year more than 600 volunteer tax preparers put more than $34 million back into the Central Texas community in the form of tax refunds to more than 20,000 families, and this tax season, they’re on track to do the same. The volunteers are organized by Foundation Communities, a nonprofit that provides housing and social services to support working families and individuals.
This week, Foundation Communities marked a milestone of 250,000 tax returns since 2006, for a total of more than $400 million. The program serves Central Texas families who make less than $55,000 annually by preparing their tax returns for free. Foundation Communities recruits and trains volunteers to walk families through filing their tax returns.
It turns out that preparing other people’s tax returns is one of the most fulfilling volunteer activities you can do. “It’s one of the few volunteer opportunities where you’re seeing direct impact you’re making on families right then and there,” said Jackie Blair Cuellar director of volunteer engagement for Foundation Communities. Volunteers have shared stories about how a family’s tax refund has helped them pay off a bill or pay for much-needed medical care.
Jewel Arrington, a professional financial advisor who has been a volunteer tax preparer for nine years, said, “These are hard-working people trying to do the right thing. For us volunteers, it’s a positive experience. It sounds a little hokey, but that’s really how a lot of people feel.”
Foundation Communities operates six tax centers all across town and recruits and trains volunteers from December to January. While training for preparing tax returns is no longer being offered, they continue to recruit client liaisons and Spanish translators. Volunteers are asked to take a two-hour training online and learn a bit about privacy and ethics, and most can start volunteering right away. In addition to recruiting people from across the community, Foundation Communities partners with the UT-Austin McCombs School of Business, which sends about 200 accounting students to tax centers across the city.
“The program is also making a huge impact on those students,” said Cuellar, “because it helps them get out into the community, learn about the issues families face, and just learn more about that population.”
“And that’s one of the things you hear people say,” she continued. “They’ve always heard that if you work hard, you’ll be successful. Then they meet these people working three jobs to support their families and still just making enough to get by. And it’s really eye opening.”
NOTE: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on February 24, 2019.