Written by Charlie Sun, Mei Lu
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Andrea Barkley
In mid-November 2022, Tzu Chi USA Southern Region’s Atlanta Branch Office undertook an initiative to offer free tax preparation services to those with low and moderate incomes in their community. The free tax preparation service team consisted of Charlie Sun, head of the Atlanta Branch Office, Tzu Shan Lin, head of the tax preparation program, and Mei Qing Que, secretary. The team provided services from February 4, 2023, to April 15, 2023.
Setting up the Free Tax Preparation Team
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is a professional program requiring volunteers to be certified by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) before providing free tax preparation services at authorized tax preparation stations. These services assist people with low- and moderate-income who need a helping hand in navigating this sometimes daunting process.
Although most of the volunteers who volunteered to join the free tax preparation team were Chinese Americans, more than 20 volunteers were from other ethnic groups. On January 28, 2023, nearly 30 volunteers gathered in the multi-purpose room of the branch office to participate in a volunteer orientation session. Charlie Sun, the head of the Atlanta office, introduced Tzu Chi USA and its various volunteer projects during the orientation. Then, Tzu Shan Lin, who coordinates the free tax preparation service, explained the IRS regulations, job descriptions, responsibilities, and precautions. To provide appointment-based assistance, in addition to online appointments via QR code, a telephone customer service line was also set up, undertaken by volunteer Cui Zhen Ouyang.
Administrative support and logistics were also crucial to the free tax filing program. For each tax preparation service, the admin team set up the venue the day before, and volunteer Wenyi Wang would pick up and deliver meals weekly. The administrative support also required arranging various types of volunteers according to the weekly appointment scheduling, trying to match the number of volunteers with the number of people on a specific day.
On February 4, 2023, the Atlanta Branch Office officially launched this season’s free tax preparation service. On that day, the temperature was near freezing, but 21 volunteers from Tzu Chi were in place half an hour in advance, receiving their uniform vests and name tags, preparing paperwork and office supplies, and waiting for those who had made appointments to file their taxes.
Thanks for Bringing Us Together
Applicants included older adults, families, and single people who had recently immigrated and needed to file their first-year tax returns, all of whom had incomes under $60,000 in 2022. The volunteer team served 25 families and individuals that day, the free tax preparation service helping these low- and mid-income families get through the difficulty of tax season with less stress.
The Atlanta Branch Office called for bilingual volunteers in English, Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Spanish. With the help of this team of diverse volunteers and the efficient service of the tax preparation volunteers, people who had appointments, and even walk-ins, could all receive reliable and effective assistance.
The IRS has stringent formalities for the free tax preparation service stations through Field Site Visits (FSV) and Remote Site Reviews (RSR). On February 15, the IRS wrote to the Tzu Chi Atlanta Branch to inform them of the results of the remote site review, and they received a perfect score, delighting the hardworking volunteers.
A Touching Sign Language Prayer
The Atlanta Branch Office had a strong team of tax preparation and logistics volunteers, including project leader and coordinator Tzu Shan Lin, who has many years of experience in free tax preparation services, and tax preparation volunteer recruiting and training team leader Xiu Qing Huang, who is a professional financial advisor. In addition, tax preparation volunteers Mary Webb and Yu Jian Lu are currently employees of the IRS, and Tzu Shan Lin and Charles Simmons are retired IRS employees.
Many tax preparation volunteers from the community were so moved by the spirit of love that they said they would come back to volunteer at Tzu Chi after the tax preparation season was over.
Martha Alarcon, a volunteer translator from South America, said, “I’ve been serving the community for many years, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to serve Latin Americans who don’t speak much English.”
Care Recipients Announce “We’ll Come Back Next Year”
Volunteers also took the chance to interact with the public and introduce Tzu Chi USA and its missions. One of the care recipients, Rita Udeshi, from India, came with her elderly parents to file their taxes and proactively asked about Tzu Chi, whose philosophy of love without borders touched her. She expressed her willingness to come to Atlanta to participate in Tzu Chi activities and to volunteer if needed.
Numerous individuals who benefited from Tzu Chi’s free tax preparation service this season expressed appreciation for the aid, as they found the service helpful for their families. While the volunteers delivered professional support, they did so with empathetic warmth and kindness. When the care recipients were leaving the service site, besides expressing their thanks, many asked, “Can I come back next year to file my tax return here?” The volunteers answered without hesitation, “Of course, we will see you next year at this time!”