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Lower-Income Families Find Tax Relief from Volunteer Programs

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Volunteer tax programs are providing free services to lower-income families. NY1's Tara Lynn Wagner filed the following report.

All across the country, lower-income individuals and families are able to get their taxes done for free at VITA sites, which stands for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. Just as it sounds, the preparers are trained volunteers who set up shop in settings like libraries, college campuses and church basements. The Food Bank for New York City, for instance, has hundreds of volunteers preparing returns in several locations.

"But we couldn't afford to put a VITA program in every single neighborhood," said German Tegeda, Director of Financial Services at the Food Bank for NYC.

Now, thanks to technology, they don't have to. Virtual VITA sites are modernizing the process and giving it a digital spin. Taxpayers bring their documents to a local intake center where they are scanned and sent to volunteers at a remote location, like one which just opened at the St. John's University Queens campus.

"The screens that they have are dual screens: one side of the screen is actually the documentation from the client and the other side of the screen is the tax software that the students use to prepare the tax returns," said Nina Dorata, Accounting Professor at St. John's University.

"This is a site that allows us to service clients in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Suffolk County, Yonkers. There are virtually no boundaries because of this virtual site," said Garvey Jean, graduate student and VITA volunteer.

The IRS set up the first Virtual VITA sites in 2011 and this season have over 300 in operation, including 10 on college campuses. Accounting professor Nina Dorata who oversees St. John's VITA program, says the new center gives student volunteers practical experience in a setting virtually identical to what they'll find in the workforce.

"Clients typically drop off their tax data to an accountant, and then disappear until the tax return is prepared, and if there’s any questions, the accountant would call the client, and that’s simulated here," said Dorata.

"The idea that we can have telephone conversations to communicate between our clients is really helpful, and it's something that as business professionals, we're going to have to need to know," said Jean.

If your household income is lower than $52,000 a year, you may be eligible for free tax prep services through the VITA program. To find a site or intake center near you, call 311 or visit www.irs.gov.

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