Giving back: volunteer filing income tax returns

Last year, I set the ball in motion. When I was renewing my CGA student membership for the year, amongst the questions I should generally be answering “No” to to signify that I’m not offering services I’m not entitled to, there was one asking if I was part of a volunteer organization that prepared income tax returns.

No, but that was an intriguing idea. Most of my volunteer gigs have been “No skill required” where I just had to show up and be cheerful. The most challenging gig, thus, was when I was a run leader and we would go out on long runs on Sunday, up to 20 kilometers with the group. A little Googling and I learned about the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP), a collaboration between the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and community organizations and the organization closest to me is at a church 11 blocks away (then I moved one block closer). Perfect.

In the fall, I contacted the coordinator and proceeded to apply for my Efile number, get a background check done and other formalities. In February, I attended seven CRA webinars that covered some of the specific circumstances that form a majority of our clientele and the government slips they hold: Aboriginal peoples, seniors with medical expenses and disabilities, newcomers to Canada, and families with dependents and the associated benefits.

Then a three-hour orientation was held on Valentine’s Day. It was a good opportunity to get on the same page and meet the other volunteers whom I wouldn’t necessarily have the time to interact with or even see every Saturday when we run the clinic for four hours. What I didn’t expect during the orientation was the close affiliation between the tax clinic and the church that hosts it. Many of the volunteers attend the church and joined after they saw advertisements for the clinic posted around the church. We prayed a couple of times and the the operations director of the church spoke to us and we prayed a third time. It’s okay with me but I was surprised and NPY said I shouldn’t have been.

The clinic only runs weekly during the month of March for those who get their papers together early, ahead of the filling deadline at the end of April. Then it takes a break until July when it runs monthly until November. Many of the other volunteers are practicing accountants and one woman works in payroll. They all have such a strong background in tax, I relegated myself to simple case: seniors living in homes who sent in their papers and people filing singly. Next year, I will have this year’s experience with filing as a couple and some practical experience filing as a family. So… bring it on then!

I signed up for the last three weeks of March but there was a mix-up about the last week and I showed up although the coordinator wasn’t expecting me. There were more volunteers than they needed so it was an excellent opportunity to spend more time with each client. And when that happened, that’s when I did get a taste of the stories that I heard about during testimonials during orientation.

The client I spent the longest talking to was a retired gallery owner who urged me (and anyone young) to vote in the upcoming transit referendum. We could talk about travelling and living and commuting in other Canadian cities we’ve lived in and appreciate the Vancouver neighbourhoods we live in (Mount Pleasant and Olympic Village). She makes retirement look fabulous.

Most of the time, I’m simply amazed with the clients’ ability to face their obstacles. We don’t have to talk about it but it’s written all over their faces and in their financial information.

I’m happy to help and use my skills during volunteerism. I don’t downplay how little I know compared to the veteran CVITPers but I’m still able to help clients who would otherwise be unable to file their tax returns. I feel really fortunate about my life but don’t feel as if I necessarily would be on this path without quite a bit of luck. What I have is access to the tools to help them and time. I’m glad to share this and will be back next year.