Continuing VITA Tax Services Despite the Pandemic

Mid-Atlantic  |  August 15, 2021
Onsite volunteers practice social distancing as they work diligently to complete clients’ tax returns. Photo/Sueling Wang

Written by Philadelphia Service Center Documentation Team
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

Since 2016, volunteers at Tzu Chi USA Mid-Atlantic Region’s Philadelphia Service Center have provided VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) services for the community at the Service Center’s office. They offer free tax help to people who make $57,000 or less, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and taxpayers with limited English who need assistance in preparing their tax returns. Although the office is not large, both the number of volunteers and people served have increased over the years.

In March 2020, during the tax filing period, the COVID-19 pandemic spread rapidly in major cities in the United States. The Pennsylvania government strictly enforced laws prohibiting businesses and organizations from conducting in-person services. The Service Center had to suspend its operations, including all VITA services. Understandably, this was a blow to those who relied on these services.

In October 2020, almost a year into the pandemic, the volunteers started to discuss resuming tax filing services for the public. Although some were concerned about being infected by the virus, most felt compelled to serve even in difficult situations. Thus, the team decided to resume VITA services with some adjustments in the procedure.

A volunteer greets a client cordially and explains the filing process to her. Photo/Lai Gan

Preparations and Careful Teamwork Are Key

The volunteers would provide tax filing assistance on an appointment basis after carrying out various urgent preparatory tasks. They met periodically for strategic planning, filed the necessary applications with the IRS, recruited volunteers, purchased isolation panels and protective masks, determined protective safety measures and standards, etc. Most important was to take preventive measures to protect the safety of volunteers and the public. Instead of interacting face-to-face, the team would mostly rely on Zoom meetings and phone calls to connect with clients and one another. The increased workload emerging from the implementation of all the safety measures did not deter the volunteers from wanting to serve and help those in need during these tough and challenging times.

Volunteers’ attention to detail ensures the correct filing of every return. Photo/Sueling Wang

Due to safety concerns associated with onsite tax filing, only a few volunteers were stationed at the Service Center to receive the required documents. The team rearranged the Jing Si Bookstore section of the office for the clients who came in to hand their tax documents to the waiting volunteers. As soon as clients walked in, the volunteers greeted them cordially, reminded them to wear masks and sanitize their hands, checked and photocopied their IDs, and conducted simple interviews. After clients left, the volunteers were required to disinfect the tables and chairs to prepare for the arrival of the next client. The office team was extremely busy seven days a week, answering calls, arranging appointments, and waiting for clients to submit tax returns. The other volunteers worked from home on Saturdays to complete tax returns virtually based on the uploaded data.

After completing each tax return, it would go through a peer review, followed by a final inspection, all the steps conducted virtually. The volunteers stationed at the office would then print out the finalized tax return and contact the client, asking them to come in to sign it. Starting at 9 AM each Saturday morning, the office was alive with the constant ringing of incoming text messages and phone calls: “No. 3 needs review…” “Please help to check last year’s information on No. 2…”. The team had thoughtfully mapped out the entire process, and everyone worked together seamlessly to ensure uninterrupted service. Whether at the office or from home, the volunteers worked tirelessly to serve the public.

The pandemic has created a greater need for VITA services, which volunteers are determined to provide. Photo/Sueling Wang
Isolation panels and protective masks were purchased from Tzu Chi USA headquarters to protect the safety of volunteers and the public. Photo/Sueling Wang

Providing Attentive Care

Due to the pandemic, many tax filing service agencies in Philadelphia closed down, including some which traditionally served the elderly population. Therefore, many of the clients who filed tax returns with Tzu Chi this year were seniors who became aware of the Foundation for the first time. The volunteers helped these elderly clients with great respect and care as if they were assisting their own parents. 

When they observed that their masks were loose or dirty, they replaced them with new ones. Sometimes the seniors brought their papers in torn plastic bags that exposed their documents. Seeing this, the volunteers would hurriedly bring new bags and help transfer the paperwork to a more secure mode of transport. Before these elderly clients left, the volunteers patiently explained and checked all their documents, ensuring they weren’t leaving anything behind, answering any questions, and accompanying them to the door.

One client had alerted the volunteers beforehand that he was a disabled person and needed assistance. When he came in, two volunteers greeted him at the door and helped him into the office to declare his taxes. Later, when his tax return was complete and ready for his signatures, to minimize inconvenience for him, the volunteers personally brought the paperwork to his home for him to sign.

Final reviewer Brother Hsihui Chang explains details of the completed return to a client. Photo/Sueling Wang

Goodwill Inspires Compassion and Good Deeds in Others

Many clients were pleasantly surprised and even touched by the volunteers’ welcoming attitude and the level of care and warmth they received. After their tax return was complete, many clients sent in cards or called to thank the volunteers. One morning, an elderly man stood alone outside the office entrance and seemed hesitant and shy about entering. Upon seeing this, a volunteer opened the door and asked the man if he needed assistance. He said, “I came here to file my taxes a few weeks ago. Your help enabled me to file my tax return early and receive a tax refund. I know that Tzu Chi is a charity organization, and I want to donate, but I don’t know if you will accept my donation.” What is especially touching is that this elderly gentleman took a train all the way from New Jersey to show his sincere gratitude to the volunteers in person.

A young man accompanied his girlfriend to file her tax returns at the Philadelphia Service Center. On his way to the bathroom, he saw a sticker on the aisle shelf with the words “for food distribution” and felt inspired to ask, “What kind of work does Tzu Chi do?” The volunteers gave him a monthly magazine introducing Tzu Chi’s missions and activities. He read the magazine carefully and asked, “Can I become a volunteer?” Then he happily filled out a volunteer form to become a member of the Tzu Chi family.

Remote volunteers work closely with onsite volunteers to ensure a smooth workflow. Photo/Jennifer Chou

Serving With Joy

In addition to the nine Saturdays during the 65-day VITA service period when the office was open to client visits, a few volunteers also went to the office almost every day to take or make phone calls relating to appointment scheduling and tax filing matters. One of these volunteers, Sister Lai Gan, was asked if she was concerned for her wellbeing. She replied, “We can help people who can’t afford to pay professionals to file their tax returns. Seeing the satisfaction on clients’ faces as they take home their completed tax returns brings me happiness in my heart.”

Brother HsiHui Chang, a volunteer responsible for the final review of tax returns, spent much time studying and preparing for the new and unique challenges of this year’s tax season, including those related to unemployment and stimulus checks. “I went to the Tzu Chi office almost every day. I was responsible for answering all kinds of questions from the clients. I would do a careful review of all of the tax documents for each client and do my best to complete their tax returns as quickly as possible.” When asked if he felt tired, he answered, “When people are in need, it’s often very difficult to find someone to help. This pandemic has caused more people to seek help than usual. We should do our part to help them, and it brings value and meaning to my own life to do so.”

As of April 3, when the Philadelphia Service Center’s VITA service ended, a total of 169 families had benefited. The pandemic has brought new and unique challenges. While these hardships tested our wisdom and courage, it was a very precious experience that boosted our resolve to relieve suffering today and always.

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