Written by Shu Li Lo
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
With this year’s tax season approaching fast, Tzu Chi volunteers know how daunting filing income tax returns can be for many people, including for our community members who have recently immigrated to the United States, and who may face language barriers. In addition, some services provided by accountants require a fee. However, if you earned less than $58,000 last year, you can have your income tax returns prepared for free via Tzu Chi USA’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
For 16 years, Tzu Chi has provided free income tax filing services at the El Monte Service Center every February. The atmosphere of mindfulness and care created by volunteers at the regional service center also helps ensure that community residents can feel completely at ease when supplying their information.
Pandemic Prevention Meets Income Tax Preparation
On February 12, volunteers arrived at the El Monte Service Center early in the morning and began making preparations straight away. This year’s activities were conducted partially indoors, and as the spread of COVID-19 is still ongoing, on-site health standards were strictly adhered to. Volunteers took temperatures, wore protective facemasks, and set up transparent dividers. Air purifiers were also installed to ensure the health and safety of residents and volunteers.
“Residents coming for tax filing can enter our office and have conversations when they come in,” said Xinying Chen, who has been a volunteer for several years. “Finally, when we have all the information we need to ask for, we will ask them to leave while the volunteers will be working at the back, so there won’t be too many people on-site, which leads to prolonged exposure.”
Visitors queued up outside in an orderly manner upon arriving at the service center. After collecting each resident’s basic information and understanding their situation, the volunteers readied for the next step. Then, one week later, the completed tax forms will be ready to be picked up.
Xinying Chen has been committed to providing this program’s crucial services for 16 years, and has also assisted with contacting and training other volunteers for the program. She is well versed with all the details of tax preparation services while providing volunteers with updated tax laws in a timely manner. “Due to the pandemic in the past two years, the government has put in place policies for supporting the public, which affects our tax laws,” she said. “Some details may be tedious and troublesome, which require more and more detailed information to complete a correct tax return form.”
“Tzu Chi has been filing tax returns for the residents for about sixteen years. The community residents have built up their trust in Tzu Chi and will come back to us for help with their tax returns every year, some of which are because of the language. The volunteers can communicate with them in Chinese, which also helps them trust us. So, every year when it’s time for tax filing, we will see a large group of people coming at a certain time; this is because of their trust in Tzu Chi.” The positive reaction from the community and other Tzu Chi volunteers had also encouraged Xinying Chen to continue with the program. “The people who come for the tax filing see me every year. Although we don’t really know each other, we meet once a year. When they feel that once they see me and they know the same person is taking over this matter, they trust us very much. Most of the tax filing volunteers are local volunteers. They come and volunteer for Tzu Chi every year to do the tax filing. I have seen the same people in the same locations who keep on returning to the same location to serve. This is why I have persisted up to now, why I have been doing the same job for 16 years.”
Serving Others Promotes Self-Cultivation
Many years ago, an experience with an accountant while filing taxes motivated Honglai Wu to study tax law herself. Later, she discovered that she could not only file her own taxes, but apply what she had learned to help others. Upon learning that Tzu Chi provided free VITA services, she took part in the training for volunteers.
Honglai Wu joined Tzu Chi every year to assist in the program. While serving others, she also carefully examines her own words and actions to enhance her relations with others further. “I’m a Buddhist myself, and I’m practicing. I take it as a chance to observe myself when it comes to tax filing. When I tell a resident something, and he doesn’t understand, I don’t lose my temper. For me, this is a kind of cultivation that I need to be aware of through my language, and I feel that I have made a little progress every year, because I have read a lot of scriptures, and I feel that I have made a little progress in dealing with things.”
Many guests who came for the services were people who do not speak English as their primary language. “For example, a resident I helped brought a lot of materials, and I asked him if he had filled out this form. He said, ‘I don’t speak English,’ so we provided services to him,” Honglai Wu said. “We have many volunteers who speak different dialects, such as Taiwanese, Hokkien, Cantonese, or Vietnamese. We are not only helping people from low-income households but also helping people overcome language barriers.”
When Qiuyue Zhang’s children had all grown up and left home for college, she took advantage of her spare time by doing volunteer work. “You can meet with many different people here, you can learn a lot of things, and you can find everything here to be very, very orderly and well-organized. Everyone has a clear distribution of work for what they should do.” She said that helping through her ability to translate makes her realize her own value. “Sometimes, we help those who don’t speak English fill out the forms; we also help answer questions. That’s why I came to volunteer.”
John has visited the Tzu Chi Alhambra Medical Center for medical services for the past 20 years. He also went to Tzu Chi’s El Monte Service Center for Tzu Chi’s VITA program, and expressed his appreciation for the experience volunteers provided. “I knew I could get great help, and I’m grateful to them for completing my tax return. My tax preparer was very kind and patient; she reminded me that I forgot to fill out a page of one form. I am very satisfied with her service. I hope that she can help me when I come back next year.”
Silan Fang came for the tax filing with her husband. She said that she did not know much about filing taxes. Hence, she hoped that Tzu Chi volunteers would be able to provide advice. “This place is highly credible. With the help dealing with the filing, they saved us a lot of unnecessary trouble, which is really good.”
Silan Fang said Tzu Chi’s help saved everyone a lot of time, and that no one would be deterred due to of lack of information. “Every time we come to Tzu Chi, whether it is for tax filing or participating in other activities, we are grateful for Tzu Chi’s help and dedication to everyone,” she said.
Susu Zhang came to Tzu Chi accompanied by her friend, who is a recent immigrant to the USA, and Tzu Chi volunteers helped with their filing as well. “The volunteers here explained everything very clearly and helped us a lot. I am grateful to the volunteers here. They were very patient,” she expressed.
Volunteers introduce and carefully explain the information to community residents. Photo/Shu Li Lo