Jerry Jenkins shifts her weight in a folding metal chair and starts to get comfortable as she waits to hear her name called. She peers out over the top of a blue facemask and holds the content of a manila file folder securely in her lap.
Jenkins is waiting to be called next to the desk at this Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) center at the West End Mall in Atlanta. The room of an old retail shop in the corner of the mall has been taken over by a team of masked volunteers sitting at desks divided by clear partitions, in front of chairs evenly-spaced out and routinely wiped down and sprayed with Lysol.
Each year, United Way of Greater Atlanta provides free tax preparation services to the community through a partnership with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The VITA program provides people in Greater Atlanta and their families these services for those with low-to-moderate income, and those tax services are done by IRS-trained professionals and certified volunteers.
These physical locations are usually packed throughout the week, but things have obviously changed this year because of the Coronavirus pandemic and guidelines put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
VITA is designed to make sure you take home all of your tax refund without worrying about fees. That’s what brought Jenkins, who is decked out in full green from head to toe on St. Patrick’s Day, here to this site—well, that, and her daughter Stephanie Sanchez, who physically brought her to the site.
“I had no experience with this [VITA] before,” Jenkins says. “But I had heard about it through my daughter. I’ve done programs like this with AARP in the past.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had changed the typical plans for what these VITA locations and other similar programs may have done in the past, but Jenkins says she knew she could feel safe coming to this site on the Westside.
“I felt like I could come here and be more secure, and feel secure giving them my information—plus, it’s free,” she says with a laugh.
Jenkins and Sanchez have lived in the Atlanta area their entire lives, and Sanchez says she has continually taken advantage of the free services offered by United Way. She’s familiar with United Way and had worked with different children’s programs in the past that had been partners with United Way of Greater Atlanta, she says.
“For one, it’s free; two, you feel safe,” Sanchez says. “You can trust that they are experienced, and you can feel safe giving them your information.”
Jim Currie is one of the volunteers at this site at West End Mall who ensures safety and security at this VITA location. Currie is a technology consultant and makes sure all of the computers, printers and other equipment are operating efficiently.
He’s been doing this for about 12 years—he got his start in this specific role with the Atlanta Community Food Bank before merging with United Way, he says.
“I’m here to make sure that all of the equipment works and that we have a process to get people in and out,” Currie says.
Currie, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, is 90 years old—he’ll turn 91 in July— and after his time in the military, Currie worked for IBM for 22 years. He says he wants to volunteer with VITA for “as long as [he] can.”
In his 12 years volunteering, a lot has changed, but no year has been quite like this one, he says.
“It’s different—It’s different because of the virus.” he says. “But one thing we want to make sure of is that everyone feels safe. It’s a safe environment, people are wearing masks, keeping their distance and they’ll take care of you.
The attention put on safety, security and the overall professionalism is what brought Sanchez back again, this time with her mother.
It’s been a difficult year, of course, and filing your taxes is more important than ever. This year, because of CDC guidelines for COVID-19, VITA is serving Greater Atlanta with free virtual tax prep opportunities as well as free limited in-person tax prep, by appointment only. You can also do it yourself with help from an IRS-Certified Volunteer.
“It’s important to me to get the most out of [your tax return] as you can,” Sanchez says. “I mean, it’s the law, you have to file your taxes every year. You want to get it done where you can feel safe—there are so many scams out there, and you don’t want to just hand out your information to anybody.
“Overall, VITA has been very convenient for me.”
On March 17, the IRS announced an extension of Tax Day to May 17. Take the time now to learn more about VITA, the Earned Income Tax Credit and how you can find an in-person drop-off at a number of locations across Greater Atlanta.
United Way also partners with My Free Taxes so you can file personally from your own home.