Tax Volunteers File for Alaskan Adventure
Imagine traveling to small, rural outposts in our country’s last frontier for a volunteer opportunity. The work makes a lasting impact on those served, provides an emotional connection and an opportunity to learn about native cultures.
Volunteering to prepare a properly filed tax return is probably not the experience that comes to mind. However, it is exactly what Alaska Business Development Center (ABDC) volunteers have done since 1996.
The Anchorage non-profit, which is supported by State Farm, provides help to those without access to professional tax preparation services. ABDC volunteers travel to isolated villages. The communities are not on the limited state road system and are only reachable by airplane. They provide year-round, hands-on, tax preparation assistance through the Volunteer Tax & Loan Program (VTLP). It focuses on reaching Alaskan natives, low-income taxpayers and individuals 60 years and over.
The volunteers’ dedication to helping those in need and their sense of adventure trekking the AK wilderness has fueled ABDC’s success for more than two decades. In 2016, 90 local professionals and out-of-state college students trained and volunteered. They contributed 5,250 hours of in-kind service in 70 Alaska communities and traveled a combined 326,000 air miles.
“This is a very unique program. It brings together many key elements providing great value to all those involved," said ABDC Executive Director Michelle Kern. "The volunteers are instrumental in giving the program reach across most regions of the state. It is their hard work, dedication and sense of adventure, combined with their desire to help others that creates a win-win environment.”
Volunteers often battle harsh weather to bring tax education and preparation to the farthest reaches of the state. Accommodations are sometimes minimal. They travel in teams, pack only essential personal items, and often end up spending nights in a sleeping bag on a floor mat. They work out of an “office in a box” to provide the tax preparation services.
Many rural Alaska residents have large families. Incomes often fall below what is needed to support the household throughout the year. In some cases, the tax refund generated from a properly prepared return can amount to a double-digit percentage of a family’s annual income. That money can help provide for a family’s basic needs.
Home-cooked meals and hugs are the expression of heartfelt gratitude from the residents helped. They are an emotional reward for the volunteers’ time and effort.
The ABDC surveys participants. One of the questions asks, “What did you like best about the services provided?” Among the responses: “I wouldn’t even know where to begin with my taxes, the program helps a lot!” and “We have come to expect you guys annually!”
It also gets positive feedback from the volunteers. “The VTLP volunteer experience offers a unique way to help improve the quality of life for remote Alaska communities all while on a once in a lifetime adventure,” says program volunteer Jill Clark.
These feelings are proof that the program is meaningful and beneficial on both sides of the volunteer equation. Genius Albert Einstein once said, “The hardest thing to understand in the world is income tax.” The ABDC volunteers are addressing that understanding gap in a uniquely Alaskan way.