Virtual VITA, a new era in free tax prep
The 2020 tax filing year brought a new opportunity to United Way’s Erie FREE Taxes -- prioritizing the implementation of the Virtual VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program in 2021.
This year, in addition to face-to-face tax filing sessions, United Way is able to offer Erie FREE Taxes drop off service, online self-preparation tax filing through MyFreeTaxes.com and, new this year, remote tax filing service.
According to Cheryl Bates, the director of Erie FREE Taxes, 2021 was the year to pilot the virtual program so that tax filers had a number of options to choose from as Pennsylvania continued to restrict in-person gatherings. “We did not expect a high rate of response initially,” Bates said. “Filers need to have access to computer equipment and the knowledge to navigate through the program.”
The virtual option was promoted in January through the EFT scheduling service.
“As of mid-March, we’ve had 33 referrals, five terminated once they started the online process and 14 have completed filing,” Bates explained. “I think that’s pretty good for our first year.”
Providing through pandemic: Community School basic needs and supplemental food
If basic needs are not met, students cannot be expected to learn.
That's why early on in the pandemic, United Way worked through the community schools model to address heightened needs including supplemental food, clothing, health and hygiene, and other essential items. While Erie has a number of excellent sources of food and other basic needs items, many families fall through the cracks due to issues such as transportation or lack of information. Thanks to the relationships our community school directors have built with the families in their neighborhoods, they were able to identify and reach out to those who could not, for whatever reason, access food and other items that were available through other established means.
In a virtual gesture of thanks to the Erie Women's Fund who provided a $5,000 grant for Basic Needs Pantries at United Way's ten community schools we compiled this thank you video from each community school which was shared with members.
Thanks to the generosity of a number of the Erie Women's Fund and other organizations and individual donors, including Bonnell’s Auto Group, Erie Insurance and many of their local agents, our community school directors have been able to establish vital basic needs pantries, provide thousands of COVID related sanitary items and in total, 3,771 supplemental food boxes/resources.