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Volunteers were on hand during the kick off event Monday to help any qualified household file taxes.

United Way, Habitat For Humanity Launch Free Tax Prep Program

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It's coming up on tax time, a chance to catch up on bills, build up savings, or make investments. And there are community groups just waiting to help people with the preparation and filing.
The Berkshire United Way and the Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity have put together a pool of volunteers to help individuals and families file income tax with the IRS securely and for free through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.
"Doing it through VITA means it is secure, direct with the IRS, and you are not paying anything. You are not paying interest on your return. It is the most secure way to do it and the cheapest way to do it," Vice President of Community Impact for Berkshire United Way Nancy Stoll said.
The program funded through Berkshire United Way and headed by Habitat offers free tax service to any family or individual with making less than $54,000 a year. Individuals who have just a W2 to file can do it themselves for free at the Habitat office provided they make under $62,000  — and a tax preparer will be on hand then as well to help answer questions.
The program includes a partnership with the Berkshire Community Action Council and the Senior Center to open a half dozen sites throughout the county staffed with tax preparers to help. 
"There is opportunity for you to do self filing here at the Habitat offices or have your taxes done seven days a week. Between BCAC and Habitat there is not one day that you cannot get your taxes done,"  Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Carolyn Valli said.
The two groups held a kickoff event on Monday, which was open for households needing to filing back taxes. The regular tax season filing will begin on Feb. 4 and anyone interested just needs to call Habitat at 413-442-0002, or any of the BCAC sites or the Pittsfield senior center, to schedule an appointment. And don't forget to bring your returns from last year when you go.
Those who may have missed Monday's event for back taxes can still get those done too, but needs to let to organization know when they call to make an appointment so a specialist can be there and enough time can be scheduled.
The United Way has been sponsoring the service since 2011 and Stoll says since then some $5.5 million in tax returns came back to the hands of local people. The program ties in with the organization's focus on financial stability.
"There 7,846 low income families living at 200 percent poverty in Berkshire County, which is 24 percent of our county's population. For comparison, the percent of low income families in Massachusetts is under 20 percent," Stoll said, citing data from Berkshire Benchmarks through the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. 
Habitat for Humanity runs its own financial literacy program and knows how important those tax returns can be for so many people. The organization focuses on helping people prepare to become homeowners, which means working on credit scores and financial planning. Tax time is a perfect opportunity to help people get back on track.
"It really was a logical fit for us because it goes hand in hand with our financial literacy program," Valli said. 
Habitat recently joined a partnership, the Community Connector, with 25 or so service agencies to further that goal for those living here.
Those from the connector will also be available during the tax filing to help connect anyone with needed services, whether it be WIC, financial literacy classes, college education, job training, heating fuel assistance programs, or any of the array of services provided by the partner groups. 
"What we hear a lot from the community is that we know there is a lot of stuff out there but you don't know what you don't know exists," Valli said of the efforts to share information about services throughout the county.
Valli said a philosophy of the group is centered on trust and respect. She says the volunteers see a lot of people and try to develop a relationship.
"Somebody comes in and they trust you enough to share their life with you and it is not easy to come in and say 'I need help,'" Valli said. "Sometimes we forget and think that people just want to be given things and they don't. They really want to be co-creators in their own destiny."
Stoll said the United Way has a goal of bringing the percentage of low income families in the Berkshires below 20 percent. The free tax return filing program is just another way to contribute to that end.
"It's been proven to encourage work, reduce poverty, and improve child health and academic achievement," Stoll said. 
The two organizations are hoping to get 1,500 tax returns filed this season. Valli said Habitat will also have a Spanish speaking interpreter on site and Stoll added that the program is also going to the workplace of many who have been involved in the organization's job placement programs. 
"We really tried to set up every possible way to do it," Valli said.

Tags: Berkshire United Way,   habitat for humanity,   income taxes,   

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