I met with Azhar A. and his wife, Rasha, in their bright and comfortably furnished home. Soon after my arrival, Rasha brought me a cup of wonderful coffee and a small plate of homemade sweets, an expression of their warm hospitality, a tradition that is deeply ingrained in Middle Eastern culture. Five years ago, Azhar, his wife, Rasha, and their five year old daughter, immigrated to the United States from Iraq. They were placed in Erie because they had family here. While living in Iraq, Azhar and Rasha obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and Civil Engineering, respectively. For several years, Azhar worked as a translator for the U.S. military. Remaining in his country would have been “a huge risk” given his relationship with the U.S. military. He wanted to come to the United States in order “to live in peace and to become a good citizen.” He and Rasha have applied for U.S. citizenship. “America feels like our home.”Azhar found his first year in Erie to be quite hard. “Sometimes the job you find doesn’t match your education level.” Azhar has had several Erie factory jobs. He had been told there would be opportunities for advancement into engineering positions, but none came. For the past eight months, he has been a Student Ambassador in an international student and boarding school program serving a local high school.In addition to working, Azhar recently enrolled in a post-graduate program in Mechanical Engineering. He would like Rasha to pursue a Master’s in Civil Engineering after he graduates, with the hope that both will find employment in their respective fields. Until then, Rasha remains at home caring for their two year old, the youngest of three daughters. Azhar learned about the VITA program from a local social service organization. Their first Erie FREE Taxes experience “was so easy--so we stuck with it.” For them, the best part of VITA is that “it’s quick and safe,” They also value the site’s privacy, the professionalism of the volunteers, and the quality of work performed there. “And it’s free—everything we want.”This filing season, Azhar and Rasha received more than $6,000 from the Earned Income Tax Credit. The refund will help them pay bills, including his federal school loan, and make needed household purchases. He expressed his concern for people coming to America who do not know about the EITC. “It (EITC) doesn’t happen in my country.” When asked what he would say to them, he responded “I would encourage them to join this program. It’s a great benefit and great service.”
Jerry M. has lived in Erie all his life. Throughout high school, he was an average student who considered college a waste of his parents’ money because he knew he would cut some classes. He wasn’t overly concerned because “I thought I’d catch a break, get a job, and work my way up--but that didn’t happen.” Jerry has been employed in the local tourism industry as a valet for the past eight years. When the opportunity to work a night-shift arose, he applied for it because the pay was “a little bit better.” As the sole support of three sons, the better pay was important to him. Jerry is now a union steward, a role of leadership and responsibility that he takes seriously. “For some, it’s not in their nature to speak up for themselves, and as a union steward, I’m able to do that when I see an injustice.” While he works, Jerry’s boys stay overnight with their grandmother and, on occasion, with their mother. Having family support is crucial for him to maintain a night job. Being a single parent “opened my eyes about raising children alone—it’s not easy, the more children you have, the harder it is.” His youngest two, ages twelve and ten, are a bit less than enthusiastic about helping out at home. For Jerry, “it can be stressful.” On the other hand, he described his thirteen year old as “pretty mature for his age.” When Jerry bought him a cell phone, his son agreed to pay for the phone by doing some chores at home—a commitment that continues to be met. Six years ago, Jerry learned about Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) through his employer. He contacted United Way Erie FREE Taxes for appointment information. Since then, he has been a loyal VITA patron. “It’s easy to set up an appointment, I get all my taxes done for free, and I have a lot of locations to choose from. I always have a pleasant experience. The people are knowledgeable and polite. I went to the same site for three years and felt like I had my own tax lady.” This filing season, Jerry’s federal refund totaled more than $10,000, largely due to being eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit. Although he does not own a home and does not have a savings account, Jerry has developed a financial plan for using his refund to meet the needs of his family. His tax refund is deposited directly into his checking account. He uses a portion of it to pre-pay his rent and to maintain positive balances on his utilities. Additionally, he will set some aside for summer activities with his sons. “I plan ahead to pay ahead so I stay ahead.” Ever since his first experience with the VITA program, Jerry has encouraged people to use Erie FREE Taxes. He wants others to know about the benefit of free VITA service. “It’s free, all your returns are done, and you know you’re getting every credit you’re owed. I leave no money on the table—I get every penny back I’m owed.”
Judy is a single parent with an adolescent son. They live on a limited budget. She has maintained a job and a home with her son since 2011 after she and his father divorced. The source of Judy’s strong work ethic, both in the classroom and in the work world, is readily apparent. Her father worked construction and did carpentry work; her mother held 2-3 jobs at any one time.
Judy began working before she was 16 years old doing small jobs in the neighborhood. Later, she did volunteer work in a local hospital. She earned a bachelor degree in Science and certification as a medical lab technician. She has a long work history and has held positions as an elementary school librarian, a clinical lab supervisor, and, for many years, a dental assistant and receptionist in a dental office. Currently, Judy is not using her degree. She “scaled back” when she became a single parent. She is an office receptionist which allows her to be available to her son. She also has a cleaning business on the side. “I’m happy and content where I’m at. You do what you can do to make it as a single parent.”
Prior to her divorce, Judy was not aware of “this wonderful program (Erie FREE Taxes).” She learned about United Way’s free tax preparation services from a postcard mailing. She has used the free tax preparation services of Erie FREE Taxes ever since.
“On a scale of 1-10, my experience with Erie FREE Taxes is a 12! It’s been a huge step in helping me get back on my feet and being able to keep the house.” Questions asked by the volunteer tax preparers have helped her think about financial issues more fully. They have provided her with tips to help her prepare for the future. She also learned she was eligible to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit which has been a welcome boost to her income.
We talked briefly about the benefits of the Earned Income Tax Credit. As a result, Judy thought it important for people to know that the Earned Income Tax Credit is not a government handout. The credit is money owed to eligible filers, especially those raising children, to lessen the burden of payroll taxes deducted from their wages throughout the year.
Judy is very grateful for the free tax preparation program. When asked what she would say to others to encourage them to use Erie FREE Taxes, she responded “I highly recommend it! You get the best possible outcome. It’s a win-win situation!”
Andy Rastatter and his wife, Julie, have been married for ten years and have two children in elementary school. Julie is college-educated but after marrying, she chose to remain at home to raise their children. Andy is employed by a small local company and is president of their employee union. Although he makes a decent wage, he is challenged to meet their budget month-to-month.
Andy first learned about Erie FREE Taxes through a United Way of Erie County workplace campaign presentation. Prior to using the free tax services of United Way Erie FREE Taxes, they paid an accountant to do their tax returns. Since he and his wife met the income eligibility requirement for free tax preparation, and learned that an Erie FREE Taxes VITA tax site was close to their home, they decided to “give it a try.” They were pleasantly surprised when their refund was larger than they had received in the past. When asked what they attributed the higher refund to, Andy indicated it was due to the volunteer preparer asking probing questions which revealed they were owed additional refund dollars than previously claimed.
This filing season, the Rastatters received a sizable refund. Andy indicated that the refund will not be spent on “frivolous things.” It will be portioned out to address Christmas related expenses and to meet some monthly budget needs. Additionally, Andy and Julie will be put some of the refund in a savings account for each of the children while setting some aside for a special summer activity for the children.
For the past four filing seasons that Andy and Julie have used an Erie FREE Taxes VITA site, they have found the volunteer tax preparers to be honest, knowledgeable, very professional, and friendly. Importantly, he and his wife have “piece of mind” at tax time knowing that they are receiving the free service from “competent people.”
Although he makes VITA outreach materials available at the work place, Andy would like to see fellow employees take advantage of the free service and see how it could help them. “If only there was some better way to encourage them.” An effective way to motivate people to take a different course of action is by being a good role model. Andy is well on the way to being this!
Mary is a single mom in her early 30’s with two children, ages 5 and 3 years. She works in the housekeeping department at a local hospital as a floor specialist. As with many single moms, finances are challenging and the bills are burdensome. Mary does not have a computer, and, in the past, she had used a commercial tax preparation business to prepare her income tax returns. She then learned about a United Way Erie FREE Taxes VITA tax site close to her home and decided to try out its free services. She wanted to avoid paying the high costs of a commercial tax preparer.
Her experiences at the VITA site have resulted in her returning to the site for the past four tax filing seasons. She is “comfortable going there (VITA site), it’s a good location, the volunteers are very friendly and they work with you.” This year, she received a sizable refund which included the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Being eligible to claim the EITC has helped her “pay bills and put food on the table.” Mary would like people to know that using an Erie FREE Taxes VITA site “is easy, it doesn’t take a long time, and the people are helpful. It’s a good way to save money.”
She’ll be back next year!
Todd has been a union plumber for six years, but is currently layed off. In the past, he has used the services of commercial tax preparation businesses and professional preparers. In 2008 he began using a free VITA site. Although he thinks he could do his own returns, he “feels better” having Erie FREE Taxes do them. “It’s like getting them done by a professional preparer, but free. You get more of your refund back.”
This filing season, Todd’s refund was nearly five-thousand dollars. He will rely on it “to pay bills and basically to survive. It’s a wonderful service, simple, easy…overall always a pleasing experience.”
Todd was happy to be interviewed about his VITA experience. “I’m grateful to take part in this to try to help others in my predicament.”