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Tax preparation program seeks volunteers

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

The Atlanta Prosperity Campaign is gearing up for its third-annual effort to assist low-income and elderly residents in preparing their taxes. But campaign organizers say they need the help of volunteers.

The campaign is an initiative of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, created in partnership with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), said Cicely Garrett, the campaign's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program coordinator.

"There are more than 300 volunteers for the VITA sites each year," Garrett said. "Without the volunteers, we could not run this program and save taxpayers an average of $300 on their tax preparation."

She said volunteers are needed throughout the metro-Atlanta area for the upcoming tax season.

Garrett said the two groups, the food bank and the IRS, come together with other organizations during tax season to provide the free tax preparation program. The all-volunteer effort, which is made available to households earning less than $48,000 a year, includes more than 40 VITA sites in 10 metro-Atlanta counties.

"While tax season doesn't officially begin until January of 2010," Garrett said, "the campaign is focusing now on building the massive volunteer base that will be needed."

McDonough resident, Andre Re, has been a volunteer with the VITA program for nearly 30 years.

Re, a retired executive with the IRS, is currently the site coordinator at the McDonough VITA site, at First Assembly of God. He will also be assisting at a Jonesboro VITA site, at the Community Impact Center.

"I just think it's a good service to the public," Re said. "I think it's important to give back to the community."

Re has been assisting VITA in Henry County for the past nine years. He assisted in preparing more than 300 of the more than 12,000 tax returns filed in metro Atlanta through VITA this past year.

"Tax laws are more complicated than they ought to be and a lot of people need help knowing how to navigate the tax system, especially the elderly and the lower-income taxpayers," he said.

Re advises taxpayers to file their income taxes as soon as they are able. He said there are opportunities for taxpayers to file amended returns if the need arises later.

"The thing is not to wait until the last minute," Re said. "That's the key."

Garrett said volunteers like Re will be needed at VITA sites throughout the 2010 tax season, from Jan. 15 until April 15.

She said the campaign needs to fill various volunteer positions including the roles of: tax preparer, for which no prior financial experience is required; intake administrator, which helps manage VITA client intake; quality reviewer, experienced tax preparers who perform quality reviews on prepared returns; and interpreter, volunteers who are bilingual and fluent in Spanish, French, Mandarin or Cantonese.

"I think this year, we'll be a lot more focused on the new tax credits that have come out of ARRA [the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act]," Garrett said. "Our goal is to link thousands of working families to the tax refunds they deserve."

Garrett said there are hundreds of thousands of low- to moderate-income workers who are eligible for the VITA services who may not be aware of their eligibility. Many more, she said, are unaware of the additional services offered at the VITA sites.

"A lot of our VITA sites, we see them as a portal," she said.

She said the campaign provides information at each of its VITA sites and has on-site representatives at some sites who offer the assistance of the campaign's different services, including help in finding employment.

"By becoming a VITA volunteer, you can help workers escape the cycle of poverty and help employers build a stronger, more stable workforce," Garrett said. "Our communities can become more financially stable because more money is put into the pockets of working families and greater investment is made in local goods and services."

Garrett said the campaign will need volunteers in both Henry and Clayton counties.

She said volunteers may work at the Henry County site, at First Assembly of God, 338 Ga. Highway 42 North in McDonough. They may also volunteer at one of three different Clayton County VITA sites, including: Community Impact Center, 2450 Mt. Zion Parkway in Jonesboro; Clayton County Library Headquarters, 865 Battle Creek Road in Jonesboro; and Clayton State University's School of Business, 2000 Clayton State Blvd., in Morrow.

To learn more about the VITA Program and volunteering at a VITA site, contact Garrett by e-mail at cicely.garrett@acfb.org, or by phone at (678) 553-5982.

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On the net:

Atlanta Prosperity Campaign: www.atlantaprosperity.org/volunteer