Photo of Ladder Up volunteer giving tax assistance

While we all hope that the worst of the winter weather will soon dissipate, another, often more dreaded, season of the year is upon us — tax season.

For most people, the process of filing taxes is unanimously unenjoyable. But for others, it’s unaffordable or unnecessarily difficult. Many low-income households struggle to receive the maximum refund on their taxes and are often expected to pay exorbitant fees to a commercial accountant.

To help ease the process and save industrious individuals their hard-earned money, our partners at Ladder Up and the Center for Economic Progress host free tax assistance at 28 locations across the city from early February through April 15.

“[Our volunteer tax preparers] are helping people secure the money they need to meet their basic needs and save for the future,” said Christine Cheng, executive director of Ladder Up. “Even for those who don’t get refunds, we don’t want you to even pay someone to do the returns that you may owe money on. That’s money you should keep in your pocket.”

Going beyond the tax day need

In 1994, Ladder Up’s first year of tax prep, volunteer tax preparers served 120 families in the Chicago region. Since then, its service has grown exponentially, expanding across the metro region and to Springfield.

If eligible, a volunteer will help them prepare their local, state and federal taxes using the government’s’ e-filing system. Then, their return is reviewed by another volunteer to resolve any errors.

In addition to the tax prep services, LadderUp volunteers will also help clients check their credit report and access a feeless prepaid banking card or savings account to deposit their tax refund.

“We don’t want to offer just tax prep because there’s a big opportunity at tax time when people are receiving large sums of money,” Christine said. “We also want to introduce the idea that if you want to do something else, like put that away if you’re able to, we can help facilitate that.”

Local mom put savings to good use

For Charlesa Williams of Englewood, accessing free tax assistance has allowed her to use the money she would’ve spent on an accountant to pay for household bills and save for a family vacation.

Charlesa, a mother of one and non-profit employee, received word of the program from a flyer at her local Women, Infants & Children (WIC) center. Since, she’s visited Ladder Up’s tax sites for the last four years.

“I love the program,” Charlesa said. “[The volunteers] take the time to answer your questions and want you to understand everything. They take it step-by-step.”

The next day, she planned to rise early to be one of the first clients of the year served at Ladder Up’s Kennedy-King College site in her neighborhood.

“It’s very accessible,” she said. “You don’t have to go out of your way.”

No accounting degree required

At the site, volunteers have a variety of roles. Some help prepare taxes while others check-in and verify potential clients’ eligibility.

Through in-person and online trainings funded by the national Volunteer In Tax Assistance (VITA) program, volunteers are prepared to answer clients’ questions and explain the process of filing. They also help clients access tax credits they may not have known they’re eligible for — like the Earned Income Tax Credit and those related to childcare expenses and post-secondary education.

And many do so without any educational or work experience in taxation. Ladder Up and CEP train volunteers from all different industries and educational experiences.

“You do not need a tax or finance background to do this…We have volunteers who are law students, engineers, software developers,” Christine said. “Back in the day, we used to say ‘You only need a sharp mind and a sharp pencil’…but now you don’t even need the sharp pencil! We have online software.”

What is required is a desire to help others and facilitate a connection with your neighbors, Christine said.

“The point of what we do is not just about tax returns. It’s really what the service means to the clients,” she added. “We’re connecting people to other people in their community who want to give. It’s that someone on the other end of the table chose to give their time to help a stranger do this complicated and scary thing that is filing your taxes.”