Volunteer spotlight: Tax preparers help Metro Detroit families keep more of what they earn

VITA volunteer

Lew Elbert has volunteered with Accounting Aid Society for 13 years as a volunteer income tax preparer.

In the 13 years that Lew Elbert has been a volunteer tax preparer, he’s met hundreds of taxpayers and seen just as many W-2 forms. Still, the image of his first client is still crystal clear in his mind.

The young woman worked two jobs and lived with her children in her sister’s attic, he recalls.

“She wasn’t making much money and when I told her she’d be getting a $4,000 refund thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), she burst into tears,” Lew said. “That money was her ticket out of her sister’s attic.”

That brief interaction continues to be a motivating factor for Lew. He supervises and trains teams of Accounting Aid Society volunteer tax preparers across Metro Detroit every tax season. Most of them share similar inspirational stories

United Way supports convenient, free tax services as part of our Economic Prosperity work. This includes in-person tax preparation and online services like United Way’s MyFreeTaxes.com.

These services help people keep more of what they earn by eliminating costly filing fees and ensuring filers receive relevant tax credits to maximize their refunds. Participants are also encouraged to take advantage of financial coaching and other resources that enable long-term financial security.

The homework of life

Lew, a retired GM marketing executive, is decidedly philosophical when it comes to volunteering. Finding a meaningful way to give back is what he calls “the homework of life.”

Since retiring 15 years ago, he has dabbled in a range of other volunteer activities. This includes such activities as raising money for charities and picking up furniture for families in need. Still, it’s the volunteer tax preparation that he feels is most impactful.

“This is the most meaningful work I do,” Lew said. “For a lot of people, you’re handing them the biggest check they’ll see all year. That could mean the difference between them getting evicted and losing their kids or being able to keep a roof over their head.”

VITA tax preparer with client

Volunteer tax preparers like Lew Elbert help Metro Detroit families keep more of what they earn by ensuring they get all the tax credits they’re eligible for—like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Volunteers needed

United Way’s nonprofit tax-prep partners Accounting Aid Society and Wayne Metro offer free tax preparation at sites across Metro Detroit, in cooperation with community partners.

Additional on-site volunteers are needed to ensure the process runs smoothly and that clients get the best return on their taxes.

“If people don’t get taxes done, that’s money left on the table,” Lew added.

“Our volunteers, with each interaction with community members, create ripples of positive change not just for the person whose taxes they are preparing, but for entire families and the community as a whole,” said Carrie Grishaber, volunteer specialist at Accounting Aid Society.

Volunteers do not need to have experience with preparing taxes.

Lew compares tax preparation to filling out an expense report. He assures there’s no need to be an accountant to be successful in the role. Accounting Aid Society volunteers receive up to 12 hours of tax law training in-person or online. They also receive on-site expert support so that they can confidently complete accurate returns.

Creating impact one return at a time

Volunteers can help return millions of dollars to members of our community. Volunteers must make a minimum four-day commitment at one of 22 Accounting Aid Society locations.

Last year, in collaboration with Accounting Aid Society and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, United Way helped 85,085 Detroiters claim the EITC. As a result, they claimed $298 million in federal and state tax refunds that had historically gone unclaimed. That’s an average of $4,600 per family.

“The result of the hours volunteers serve is best described as transformative financial empowerment in southeastern Michigan,” Carrie said.

For a full list of tax season volunteer opportunities, visit our volunteer portal.