All articles are written by YJDP Student Correspondents and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
For most people taxes are a yearly inconvenience, drudgery that distracts from daily pleasure and pastimes. But for low-income families, tax bills can be the difference between eating or starving, having electricity or living in the dark. To help these people, the Loudoun County Workforce Resource Center offers a free tax preparation service for households that earn below $52,000 annually.
The program is open to anybody within this criterion, and on a cool April evening the small Leesburg offices are filled to the brim with people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. Some wear brightly colored headdresses and others are outfitted in drab work uniforms, but all wait patiently for the chance to be assigned a volunteer tax preparer to do their taxes with them.
“At the beginning we had people lined up down the halls and we didn’t get done until 10:30 or 11 at night,” said Karen Velez, organizer of the tax program. But it’s no surprise that people would be eager to participate, when the average savings amount to $200, sometimes much more.
“Our highest refund here is probably close to seven thousand this year,” said Velez. “It’s good to see that because that can help to maybe catch up on rent, catch up on their utilities, and that will help them to not need assistance.”
The money is saved both because participants often receive refunds and because they don’t have to pay for the service of having their taxes done for them. Volunteers, many of whom are certified public accountants, sit down with participants to get the most money possible from their tax returns.
“We value each hour they put in as at least $25 per hour… that’s probably the same or less than what they make at their professional jobs,” said Velez. “The value of this program last year was well [over] $1 million. That’s what we generated in refunds, volunteer time. And that’s pretty meaningful, that’s pretty valuable to the county.”
“The gratification is a little bit more instantaneous than you find in work or other places,” said volunteer Joe Schodrowski. “You feel pretty good when you help somebody come away with a positive experience…and have something to contribute to their household.”
Many participants come in out of necessity, unable to afford to pay to do taxes anywhere else, but walk away with hundreds of dollars of unexpected refunds. According to Velez, about half of participants every year are return participants who valued their experience the previous year.
And although the volunteers can’t accept any form of payment, they do accept treats.
“This year the very first week we were open a person that’s been coming here every year since we’ve opened came in with a huge red velvet cake with a heart on it, it was beautiful,” said Velez. “She says ‘Can you take this?’ I said ‘We’ll love it!’”