AARP’s free Tax-Aide program offers assistance to many area residents

Posted: January 14, 2014

The Winchester Star

John Higgins, one of the Tax-Aide lead instructors, assists Mary Ellen Sullivan during a training session at Wesley United Methodist Church in Winchester.
Mary Ciciarelli (standing left), one of the Tax-Aide lead instructors, guides volunteer tax preparers through a training session recently at Wesley United Methodist Church. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

Winchester — Preparing your taxes can be a source of dread, stress and anxiety.

A group of volunteers are hoping to help alleviate some of that pressure for local residents in need.

AARP’s free Tax-Aide program is a volunteer organization offered nationwide to help low- to medium-income citizens prepare their state and federal taxes, said James Groom, local coordinator.

He is hoping to have about 30 volunteers trained and certified by the time the program starts Feb. 3 to provide for free what otherwise can be an expensive service.

“People come in and are not knowledgeable about tax law,” said Groom, of Frederick County. “They could go to a paid tax preparer, but a lot of people just don’t have the funds. We try to get out there and help people who have that need.”

Tax-Aide is the nation’s largest free tax assistance and preparation service in the United States — more than 32,000 volunteers at 7,000 sites — giving special attention to people over age 60, according to the AARP website, aarp.org.

The local program runs from Feb. 3 to April 15, with services offered from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday in the arts and crafts room at the War Memorial Building in Jim Barnett Park.

All of the preparers have to train and take a test on the IRS-sanctioned software they use to prepare people’s taxes online and the tax regulations they need to be aware of, he said. He is waiting until that happens before he decides if he has enough workers to offer Saturday sessions, too.

Groom said he has had a good turnout for his first tax season as coordinator. He agreed to take on the position at the end of the 2013 tax season when Helen Sperry retired.

He was a volunteer preparer for the previous two years and balances his duties with working in documents processing for the Department of Justice in Stephens City.

Last week, 13 new preparers for the Tax-Aide programs in Winchester, Front Royal, Edinburg and Luray were trained in the social hall at Wesley United Methodist Church in Winchester, Groom said. Returning preparers with more than two years experience will be trained this week.

Groom is still taking volunteers for facilitators, who greet and evaluate people’s tax needs as they come in. The training will be held Jan. 22.

There is a great deal of dedication involved on the part of the volunteers, said Donald Mistretta, 71, of Frederick County, who has volunteered with Tax-Aide for the past six years. They give up large chunks of their time for both training and the preparation season.

After Mistretta retired in 2007 from Stowe Woodward Co. in Middletown, he was looking for a way to get involved in the community and help someone. Being a little more knowledgeable about preparing his own taxes wouldn’t hurt either, he said.

“I think it’s a valuable asset to the area offering a free tax service for both federal and state,” he said. “There is a lot of satisfaction for volunteers like myself because tax clients seem to appreciate our services.”

The first round of clients coming in are usually the more straight-forward tax returns, and they are a good starting point for the new preparers, Mistretta said. “However, if they get stuck on more complicated returns, there are always more experienced preparers there to help.”

Most of the volunteers are retired and looking for a way to become involved, Groom said. It is nice if they have computer skills before training, but not required.

People using the Tax-Aide service need to bring a valid picture ID because of federal guidelines, Groom said. They should also bring in any tax forms they have received, whether it is from an employer, bank, investment company, or other source, he said. “It is important they bring all their documentation.”

Information

To volunteer as a facilitator or for more information on Tax-Aide, contact Groom at 540-662-0039 or wintaxaide@gmail.com.

— Contact Laura McFarland at lmcfarland@winchesterstar.com