Longtime L-A CA$H volunteer Monica Lee sits at the Lewiston Memorial Armory recently during a daily tax preparation session. Lee, who has been assisting residents with taxes for 10 years, says the program helps people “ease their mind.”
Written by Andrew Rice and published in the Sun Journal on February 20, 2017.
Not many people look forward to preparing their income tax returns each year — or even know how — and overlooking certain steps in the complicated process can lead to missing out on some money.A lot of people spend big just to make sure they’re done right.
This time of year in Lewiston, however, volunteers including Monica Lee try to prevent that from happening.
Lee is one of a handful of volunteers who devote time during the winter each year for the Lewiston-Auburn CA$H Coalition. The Coalition provides free income tax preparation for lower-income residents and offers classes on personal finance.
For Lee, volunteering each year is a chance to meet new people among Lewiston’s diverse population and to help them save money.
“You never know who you’re going to cross paths with, but we ease their mind, and they’re so thankful,” she said.
EASING THE STRESS
Lee said one year she assisted a recent widow who had never done taxes, and during another season, she helped a single mom who broke down in tears when she told her about the Earned Income Tax Credit. EITC is available to working people who qualify based on income and other criteria.
“People come in with all the paperwork, and they’re overwhelmed,” she said.
The L-A CA$H service, which stands for Creating Assets, Savings, and Hope, began its 2017 sessions last month, and is available to people with household incomes of less than $54,000 in 2016. But officials urge residents to call to discuss their individual situations.
Those in leadership roles say the volunteers, who are certified by the Internal Revenue Service, are dedicated to helping people, especially those overwhelmed by navigating their finances.
Dottie Perham-Whittier, Lewiston’s community relations coordinator and L-A CA$H co-chairwoman, said Lee has been with the coalition for 10 years and is just as enthusiastic now as she was when she started.
She said the coalition’s volunteers are “the epitome of civic engagement.”
“In fact, many of our volunteers return year after year, as they truly enjoy preparing returns for their fellow community members, as well as informing them about tax credits they might not know they are eligible for,” she said. “In addition, the value of our IRS-certified volunteers is really priceless, as they bring peace of mind to folks who want to be sure everything is filed correctly. The fact that their services are free is also a plus for household budgets.”
DATA FROM PREVIOUS YEAR
Last year, Lewiston helped 1,950 households with their federal tax returns. An additional 2,120 state returns were completed. This could not be done without the assistance of 30 volunteer tax preparers, Site Coordinator Sue Martin said. The tax preparations are done at the Lewiston Memorial Armory on Central Avenue.
Since the L-A CA$H Coalition began in 2004, it’s been managed by K.C. Geiger. This year he is serving as assistant site coordinator in a transition with Martin. Under Geiger, the program has gained state and national recognition.
Geiger said volunteers such as Lee are what keeps the popular program running.
“She has her own little entourage that come in and wait especially for her,” he said.
Lee, 52, volunteers every Saturday during the tax season, but sometimes fills in during weeknight sessions. She works full time at Montello Manor, a nursing home on Central Avenue.
Prior to volunteering for L-A CA$H, Lee also volunteered for three years at Hope Haven Gospel Mission on Lincoln Street. Hope Haven serves the homeless community.
Lee saw a newspaper ad about L-A CA$H , and ended up taking a two-week class to get the IRS certification. Each volunteer must be recertified annually.
“The program has grown a lot since then,” she said. “It’s really amazing.”
Perham-Whittier said Lee “considers it a privilege to help whoever comes through the door. She is the type of person who enjoys helping others.”
The L-A CA$H program’s annual “super refund Saturday” event was held this past Saturday, Feb. 18. Lee said all 30 volunteers attend the daylong event. Geiger said 212 people filed taxes during the 2016 event.
Asked whether she plans to continue volunteering, Lee said, “Absolutely. I love everything about it.”
She said she is drawn to the diversity of people who come in, whether they’re a recent immigrant, a single mom or a senior.
“Taxes are universal,” she said.