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VITA program deemed a success

May 15, 2019
By MEGHAN BRADBURY (news@breezenewspapers.com) , Lehigh Acres Citizen

More than 1,052 families were seen through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program at Lehigh Community Services this year through United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee.

Of those clients served, the total refunds amounted $1,429,258 in Lehigh Acres.

"There were clients that had come in that didn't need to file a return, or they just had questions about a letter they received from the IRS, or they wanted us to review a tax return they did on their own before they sent it in. Those clients are not included in the totals," United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee Volunteer Engagement Manager Mary Meador said.

One of the initiatives with the VITA program in Lehigh Acres was to encourage individuals to put some of their refund aside in a savings account.

"We had about 110 people participate. Eighty-nine people actually split their refund into two accounts and the others put all of their refund into their savings account," she said. "I think the chance to win $100, $50, or $25 is a great incentive that encouraged people to put some away for a rainy day - an emergency fund. Our three winners were very excited when they heard they had won. We even had one client win $100 from the SaveYourRefund national contest!"

United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee served more than 5,500 clients with the free service providing approximately $7.4 million in tax refunds, which saved $1.6 million in tax preparation fees.

There was a 16 percent increase in clients served over last year as programs were expanded to include new drop-off services in Lehigh Acres, outreach to all ACT Shelters, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Center, Florida Southwestern College, several remote neighborhoods and a migrant worker camp.

Overall, there were a total of 187 trained and certified volunteers - 155 tax preparers and 32 greeters.

A VITA Valet program was offered for the first time to Lehigh Acres residents this year.

Meador said the VITA Valet Program saw 27 clients this tax season.

"It was the first time we tried this program, offering it once a week on Tuesdays, and I feel like it was a success. Our hopes are to expand the program for next year," she said.

The VITA Valet service was offered for individuals who wanted to drop off their tax paperwork on Tuesday, while volunteers worked on their return throughout the week. That individual then stops by the following Tuesday to pick up the completed tax return.

To make the VITA IRS sponsored program, which is provided for low- to moderate-income individuals who earn $66,000 or less, a success a total of 30 trained volunteers lent a helping hand in Lehigh Acres. Nine of those were greeter/interpreters and the other 21 were tax prepares.

Meador said some of the volunteers were clients from last year, work at Suncoast Credit Union, retired, students at Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern State College, homemakers, seasonal residents, as well as some who work full-time and have a family.

"One of our greeters/interpreters was a high school student from East Lee County High who is very much interested in being a tax preparer next year," she said. "I am thankful for all the volunteers who gave up their valuable time to make this tax season a huge success in Lehigh, and I am looking to expand the program even more next year. If anyone is interested in joining us for next tax season, they can register now at www.unitedwaylee.org/become-vita-volunteer/ and I will contact them in the fall with information on how to become a certified VITA volunteer."

There are four year round VITA sites located in Lehigh Acres, Estero-San Carlos, LaBelle and Fort Myers. These sites are operated by appointment only and can be made by calling (239) 433-3900, or by visiting www.unitedwaylee.org/freetaxprep.

 
 

 

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