By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in the Florida Times-Union
Alice Baker’s first encounter with volunteerism was her birth in Brooklyn, N.Y., during a January snowstorm. With roads impassable, neighbors and relatives congregated at her house to help bring her into the world.
“One of our neighbors was a nurse and came plodding through the snow up to her knees.”
Now as an adult, cooler weather still signals the start of volunteerism. Baker trains volunteer tax preparers for United Way of Northeast Florida’s RealSense initiative. It’s a role she has grown into.
Baker started volunteering eight years ago after retiring from the IRS. Initially helping as a tax preparer, she has gone on to be a tax site coordinator and a tax preparer trainer — training others to prepare tax returns for clients who come in for the free service.
Fall means that Baker prepares to pull the volunteers together and help them go through the certification process that they have to do each year.
“It’s time to get started,” Baker said.
Training the tax preparers means finding ways to be both encouraging and ensure proficiency. It’s a large task.
“All the volunteers probably feel the same way,” Baker said. “Confidence is such an issue. Everyone wants to do their work correctly because people count on them. They have to get comfortable with tax law and the computer programing.”
Baker said that volunteers at a tax site in Seattle got her started with preparing tax returns and her job with the IRS many years ago. Then, after three years of living in Germany, Baker needed a job to help her family. She noticed a VITA (Volunteer Tax Assistance) site on the base and went in to ask. Staff members told her about a federal job fair, and she jumped on the opportunity.
Her husband’s retirement from the Army brought them to Jacksonville Beach.
“All I wanted was someplace sunny and warm,” she said about the move.
Although happy in her retirement, when a friend suggested that she volunteer with RealSense, she thought, “Why not?”
It’s the people who come in to have their taxes done that continue to move Baker.
“There are the old ladies who smile, the old men who cry — sometimes because they owe, sometimes because they don’t owe and sometimes because they’re lonely.”
Baker said one of the biggest concerns are paid preparers who might not have the best interest in mind for their clients, whether it’s the quality of assistance or, in some cases, even fraud.
“I had one case where the preparer had claimed charitable donations that didn’t exist,” Baker said. “Although it allowed the client to be eligible for a large refund, eventually it would have caused a lot of trouble.”
After redoing the tax return and praising the client for getting a second opinion, Baker recommended that the client never go back to that agency again.
It’s that kind of understanding that Baker will impart to the volunteers who will be walking into her classroom soon.
While others are looking for sweaters against the chill or pumpkin-flavored goodies, she’s purchased a special cellphone just for tax time. She’s getting ready to teach her classes and getting ready to listen to the countless stories of the clients who walk into the tax sites needing the free tax preparation service.