Denise Nichols retired in 2002, but she has been a volunteer with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program far longer. “As long as the VITA program has been in existence, I’ve been a part of it,” she says. “It’s the highlight of my year.”
The VITA program was founded nationally in 1971 in California and was originally run by the IRS. For the past 10 years, VITA sites have been organized at local schools, churches, and other community centers in Kent County by Heart of West Michigan United Way’s Kent County Tax Credit Coalition (KCTCC). They offer free tax preparation and e-file to taxpayers through 16 neighborhood preparation sites.
“We do returns for anyone very, very low-income up to $55,000 [household income],” explains Denise. “I think that there is a definite need for people that are low income. There are people that are destitute. We do a lot of returns for people that are on the edge of being homelessness or are homeless.”
KCTCC clients often spend tax refunds locally for basic necessities such as food and clothing, home and car repairs, or medical treatment. Since 2002, KCTCC has generated more than $73 million in tax credits for over 61,000 taxpayers in Kent County.
KCTCC’s tax preparation program utilizes approximately 200 volunteers each year – ranging from Steelcase’s finance department to GVSU students, to local church groups. Every year, beginning in December and continuing until mid-January, volunteers receive training from KCTCC and certification from the IRS to help prepare basic tax returns for their neighbors. The concept is to provide local taxpayers with free tax return preparation by volunteers, accounting students or other professionals, in an effort to provide both a valuable community service and a powerful hands-on learning experience for the preparers.
“Anybody can plug something into a computer,” says Denise. “But if you don’t know how that goes along the tax return and how one part of the return affects another, it’s useless.” Denise, who worked for the IRS for 32 years, has served the program as a trainer and site organizer. She has served multiple tax sites across Kent County, including UCOM, Gerald R. Ford Middle School, Clyde Park Church of the Nazarene, and currently, Maplelawn Baptist Church. It’s her job to make sure the volunteers know how to get their client the best benefit possible.
More than $14 million in Earned Income Tax Credit dollars go unclaimed in Kent County every year. In addition to the EITC, Denise says that people in Kent County should be on the lookout for rental and property tax credits and the home heating credit. With the help of KCTCC, working families can receive tax reimbursements of up to $6,242.
“It’s very humbling to know that you can help someone and they don’t have to go and pay hundreds of dollars,” says Denise. “I go home with the satisfaction of knowing that I helped someone who is deserving of it and in need of it.”
Denise encourages others, especially retirees, to call United Way to find ways that they can use their skills to help others. “Anybody that knows me knows me as a volunteer, because I love it. My expertise just happens to be taxes, but there is a lot of need all over our community,” she says. “You can be used somewhere.”
To learn more about volunteering and find where you're needed, visit hwmuw.org/volunteer.
Denise was featured in Heart of West Michigan United Way's ArtPrize 2015 collaboration with Adam Bird, Champions of Change. Look for more stories of local Champions of Change at ArtPrize 2016.