Volunteers are valuable to the Redstone Tax Assistance Center.
Twelve volunteers do free tax preparation for active and retired servicemembers and their families. The tax officer in charge, Capt. Dimitri Facaros, is serving this one-year rotation as part of his JAG officer training. He said he wasn’t nervous at all about assuming the responsibility.
“Because I already knew about the great volunteers here and the support the center receives from them, I didn’t have a nerve in me. They’ve been doing a great job the last couple of years. By IRS standards, we’re a model tax center,” he said.
Indeed, the volunteers are crucial to its success. “They work anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week; there are a lot of hours put in here. It’s a pretty grueling, thankless job,” said Rachael Yeoman, the center’s manager and electronic return originator. Many are either married to military members or were themselves military members.
Dave Wyatt is one such volunteer. A retired military officer, Wyatt has been working at the center for the last eight years. “I am 79 years old. If I don’t do something with my mind once in a while, I will degenerate,” he said.
Another volunteer, Brenda Jemison, went through tax classes with H&R Block and worked off-post before joining the center several years ago. “I started volunteering here because we had free tax service at other bases when my husband was active duty,” she said. “It’s just my way of giving back because we had the service for so long.”
All center volunteers must take an annual multi-day class and pass a written exam in early January, before the center opens, to become a volunteer income tax assister. After that, they are eligible to assist clients with their taxes and to file on their behalf using TaxWise, an IRS-approved tax preparation software used by VITAs.
Naturally, serving a clientele that tends to move every few years poses some challenges for the volunteers. “People think taxes are easier to file on base but they’re not. You may have rental properties in other states or have moved from another state,” Facaros said. As a result, the volunteers are trained to do more than just federal and Alabama taxes.
“We do all states, but not Puerto Rico, and there are nine states without state tax returns,” Wyatt said. That ability is invaluable to first-time filers, who may be put off by the complexity. “We have a lot of young Soldiers who have never filed a tax return. When they come here, they’re completely lost. If we didn’t help them, they might not even file,” Wyatt said.
To that end, said Facaros, “the center has saved the Redstone community approximately $2.5 million in tax preparation fees by preparing approximately 18,500 returns free of charge and helping Soldiers receive over $14 million in state and federal income tax refunds in the last five years.”
For Jemison, though, it’s nothing less than the Soldiers deserve. “Any benefit they get is a good benefit and they deserve all the ones they get through the volunteers and the military,” she said. “Even retired personnel deserve the benefits, especially when it costs so much off-post to do this.”
Which is exactly why she left her paying job as a tax preparer off-post, in order to volunteer at the center. “They would have paid me but I still would have been taking money from the people who should have had it themselves. And we often see people who need their refunds, who are ready to get them,” she said.
For the volunteers, the appreciation for their service is reward enough. “We do get a lot of thanks from the people who come in,” Jemison said.
And from the center’s management. “There’s nothing we can do to say thank you to the level they deserve, but at the closing ceremony each year, the IRS and JAG Office give certificates and coins to our volunteers,” Yeoman said. “We also have two volunteers who we nominate for the ACS (Army Community Service) volunteer luncheon, and we have our own little potluck at the end of the year.”
As for next year, Yeoman said the call will go out again for volunteers, though in all likelihood many of the same ones will be back. “We get one or two new ones every year, but we have about 10 people who come back every year,” she said.