A Community Asset: Tzu Chi USA Preps for Annual Free Tax Filing Service

National Headquarters  |  August 18, 2022
People receive tax filing assistance from volunteers in the lobby. Photo/ Shu Li Lo

Written by Shuli Lo
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Maggie Morgan

Tzu Chi USA first began working with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2007 to establish a free tax filing service for eligible households. Still going strong 16 years later, the Tzu Chi El Monte Service Center plans to set up its free tax filing service again for the 2022 season.

Since first establishing the service, Tzu Chi has helped people of different ethnicities, language backgrounds, ​​and ages with filing their taxes. The much-needed assistance program has garnered a loyal following in the community; returning filers trust the professionalism of Tzu Chi volunteers and rely on their accuracy to get a proper refund.

Although it is a free tax filing service for low-income households, everyone who comes here is treated like a customer and receives cordial, respectful, and safe services.

The free service would not be possible without the persistence of Tzu Chi’s volunteers. Over the past 16 years, team members who have passed the IRS assessment and then participated in the program have grown significantly in the unified environment. Ingrid Chen said, “Many volunteers have been with us for the whole 16 years, participated enthusiastically every year, and rejoiced in service. Through the eyes of the public, we see the results of our work, which further affirms the truth that it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

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Volunteer Ingrid Chen processes tax forms for the public. Photo/ Shu Li Lo
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When special circumstances arise, Ingrid Chen, Yongwei Wang, and Helen Liu discuss how to handle filing issues. Photo/ Shu Li Lo

Ingrid continued saying, “We offer free tax filing services because of the trust and affirmation that the public has given to the quality of Tzu Chi volunteers’ work … we provide services in multiple languages, which let those who we serve feel more at ease. Therefore, they feel comfortable returning to our service center every year and continue to receive our services.”

A Selfless Act of Service Is Never Taxing

Ingrid said the majority of clients who come to get their taxes filed are elderly and from low-income neighborhoods. Many of them are not familiar with technology and aren’t comfortable using the internet. Language barriers pose an obstacle in getting the service done somewhere else, and several clients aren’t comfortable filing themselves as they’re afraid of making mistakes. 

Tzu Chi’s tax filing team understands and empathizes with each problem their clients face. They’ve worked to develop a program that takes these challenges into account to make an already-burdensome process much easier. The service not only waives all fees but assures clients they are receiving professional services they can count on. Year after year, Ingrid is impressed with the team’s dedication and grateful for their selfless attitudes. 

At times, there are exceptional cases from the public that are brought to Tzu Chi during the tax season. Every individual’s return is different, and the process is highly-detailed, so Tzu Chi volunteers are glad to offer additional assistance to those seeking help with what can be a confusing process. In the past 16 years, one volunteer who had assisted with tax reports at the service center was later trained to become a committee member. However, this volunteer is a tax officer of the IRS, so their identity remains confidential.

People wait at the door to file their taxes. Photo/ Shu Li Lo
Helen Liu discusses tax details with volunteers. Photo/ Shu Li Lo

 Volunteer Helen Liu said, “The free tax filing services and tax filing volunteers both show that although the United States taxes everything, it has good social welfare and provides many benefits to those who need it. If Tzu Chi’s tax filing clients were to go to an accountant, they would pay a fee, even if the cost depends on personal income and the difficulty of the report. Coming to Tzu Chi is like asking a professional to file a tax return, but with more security, accuracy, and a lower risk of subsequent troubles.”

Making An Impact, One Case At A Time

Countless cases have come through the door when tax season rolls in. Volunteers are always touched by the people they meet, especially in knowing how much the service helped them. However, there are some cases that leave an unforgettable impression on the team; like the client who survived the death of a partner and still had a young child at home. 

The strain for clients like these is much more than financial, the heaviness that seeps into every part of life is apparent. Volunteers begin to put themselves in the client’s place: feeling the need to suddenly take over menial tasks like housework while still overcoming grief and panic. This kind of case moves volunteer Helen Liu, who said “In such a case, what the client needs is not only free tax returns but also spiritual comfort. I will comfort them, let them know that they are not alone and that Tzu Chi would offer varying amounts of help according to the needs of the situation.”

Some people have relatively lower income, but that does not mean they are lazy; sometimes it owes to their own conditions, family background, qualifications, opportunities, etc. The volunteers will provide comfort and encouragement, and ask Tzu Chi to set up a case to help them overcome these difficulties.

Volunteer Yongwei Wang comes to help with tax filing every year. She noted that the service demographic includes various language groups, low-income seniors, and newly settled immigrants. Yongwei said, “The most surprising thing is that young students don’t know how to file tax returns for their scholarship income. We tend to explain these types of problems clearly so that they understand thoroughly, and will not be troubled by similar questions again.”

Volunteer Yongwei Wang helps 80-year-old Simon Wu file his taxes. Photo/ Shu Li Lo
Volunteers Helen Liu and Yongwei Wang assisted Jingqin Zhao to file tax returns. Photo/ Shu Li Lo

Simon Wu, a client in his eighties, lives in close proximity to the service center, and he’s been filing his taxes with Tzu Chi for the past two years. He echoed the sentiments of other clients, noting the attentiveness of volunteers and the quality of their work, all free of charge. Simon said, “If you have income, you have to file tax returns. I don’t have much income, so I could file tax returns online, but then I am afraid of making mistakes, which might cause trouble with the government and tax inspections. At the same time, the advantage of tax filing is that you can apply for government subsidies after retirement or with a low-income status.”

Lightening the Load of Tax Season

Jingqin Zhao was one of Tzu Chi’s first tax filing clients. She said, “The volunteers’ service attitude is good, and I always feel warm after filing my tax return. Because my English is not good and I don’t understand the tax law, the annual tax filing is a huge pressure. Fortunately, Tzu Chi is always there to help.”

The quality of Tzu Chi’s work is what kept client Dixano Do, his father and younger brother coming back to the free service every season. Javier Alvarez is also a returning client, and volunteer Ingrid calls him every year for a reminder. Javier urges those who aren’t native English speakers to join him in going to Tzu Chi for tax filing.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who gets excited about tax season, and Tzu Chi volunteers and their clients could be some of the only ones in existence. As with most of Tzu Chi USA’s endeavors, the love and kindness at each event isn’t one way; recipients and volunteers alike get something out of each exchange. The free tax filing service takes a human approach to an overwhelming problem, removing financial obstacles and language barriers that cause added strife.

As Javier said, “Fortunately, Tzu Chi offers tax reporting services. I am really happy, and the volunteers are very kind.”

Client, Dixano Do, along with his father and brother, wait for their tax returns. Photo/ Shu Li Lo
Volunteers help Javier Alvarez file tax returns. Photo/ Shu Li Lo

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