When professor Tameka Lester moved to Georgia from North Carolina in 2015, she knew she wanted to help the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program any way she could. She got in touch with United Way of Greater Atlanta to discuss being a volunteer, and they asked her to create a volunteer training program.
The VITA program is funded by a grant from the IRS and helps people who make less than $55,000 per year file their state and federal taxes for free. Every volunteer has to pass a certification exam. Historically, they trained people on the software and gave people a book to study the tax law, but when Lester came, she essentially created a curriculum.
“I want to be a part of the solution to make sure taxpayers and volunteers are educated so we can prevent people from improperly claiming credits and deductions and owing money,” said Lester.
As the associate director of the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, Lester ran the VITA program for two years before Emily Yaun joined the clinic. The two now work together to conduct VITA training for volunteers four times a year in preparation for filing season.
“We look forward to it each year,” said Yaun. “It’s all about that educational aspect of helping tax preparers know what to look for and explain some of the resources they have.”
Lester and Yaun educate the volunteers on basic components of the tax return such as filing status and what to look for to make sure the people actually qualify for different credits. More recently, Lester has also created an advanced training program to help volunteers address more complicated tax scenarios such as self-employment.
The relationship with VITA is an important one for the Tax Clinic. Ideally people will get their tax return done correctly through VITA so they don’t require tax clinic services.
“By the time clients come to us, they’ve spent the tax refund and don’t have the money to pay back,” said Lester. “Rather than us being reactive and resolve the tax-related issue, I want to be proactive and train people properly so taxpayers don’t have to deal with it on the back end.”
In 2019, United Way reports 552 volunteers prepared 15,442 returns, which equals more than $14 million in refunds.
“We as a clinic appreciate what VITA does,” said Yaun. “It’s nice for us to be able to give back to them by offering the training, and we hope to continue.”
Written by Mara Thompson