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United Way: VITA program's broader reach can provide life-changing experiences

As published in the Berkshire Eagle.

Do you know that over 9 percent of Berkshire County families are living in poverty, and almost 30 percent are low-income (defined as living at 200% of poverty)?  Can you imagine the daily struggles they face to meet the most basic needs such as housing, food, childcare and transportation? Berkshire United Way and our many community partners are trying to address this situation – our community will succeed when the least among us succeed.

Six years ago, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) came to Berkshire United Way to request we partner with them and our local community to develop a countywide plan to broaden the reach of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.  In reviewing the data, they determined that here in Berkshire County, less than $500,000 was being returned to low-income working families, while their estimate was that the returns should be closer to $4 million. With a median income of just over $52,000, half of our Berkshire County neighbors were eligible to participate in the VITA program this year. 

Berkshire United Way partnered with Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, Berkshire Community Action Council (BCAC) and Purple Valley VITA—a long-standing partnership between Williams College and BCAC’s North County office—to promote the program and to recruit more volunteers.  Since then we have expanded the partners and sites where VITA is offered. 

This past spring a new group of volunteers was recruited by Berkshire United Way to offer VITA services at several south county businesses and organizations who agreed to serve as host sites (Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Community Health Programs’ Great Barrington office, and October Mountain Financial Advisors in Lee).  In addition, we provided financial support to the Hilltown Community Development Corporation, and they served our neighbors in the hill towns of Berkshire, Hampshire and Hamden County.

Reports from the IRS indicate that a total of 1,537 Federal 2017 tax returns were completed by Berkshire County VITA sites, resulting in a total of $2.2 million in Federal dollars being returned to our community.

This is truly life changing for some residents as evidenced by the following story (client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy). Maria, the divorced mother of a nine-year old child, tried to do her taxes herself and discovered she owed money to the IRS. She had made an appointment to have her taxes done through VITA and almost didn't show up, because she couldn't afford to pay what she thought she owed.

Berkshire United Way VITA volunteer, Pat Callahan, prepared Maria's return, looking for every credit she might be eligible for. Maria wound up with a refund of $4,160, most of which was the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). EITC is a benefit for working people with low to moderate income that reduces the amount of tax you owe and may give you a refund - even if you do not owe any tax or are not required to file.

Maria was overwhelmed with emotion upon learning about her return. Her car was in disrepair and this refund enabled her to get her car back on the road, with money left over to pay bills!  Following the completion of her return, Maria sent the following note to us saying, “I can't thank the VITA volunteers enough for helping me prepare my taxes! They were so knowledgeable, thorough, patient and kind. I can honestly say they changed my life that afternoon from thinking I owed taxes to looking at a substantial, much appreciated refund. It was amazing and I am really grateful.” Maria’s story is just one example from more than 1,500 individuals/families impacted by this collaborative program.

Thank you to BCAC, Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, Hilltown CDC, Purple Valley VITA and the many local VITA volunteers and host organizations for helping to build a stronger community together.

We’ll soon be gearing up for another VITA season.  If you’re interested in learning about volunteer opportunities related to this life-changing program, please give us a call at 413.442.6948 and we’ll be happy to connect you to one of our VITA partners based on your geographic location. We look forward to hearing from you!