In addition to raising money and channeling it to agencies that help people in our community, the United Way of the Lowcountry plays another key role -- forming partnerships that combine the efforts of several organizations to address a local need.
A great example of such a partnership, which is gearing up right now to provide much-needed economic resources, is the Lowcountry Area VITA Coalition. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance trains and certifies volunteers who work at sites around Beaufort and Jasper counties helping low-income people prepare their tax returns, free of charge.
VITA helps eligible taxpayers apply for benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and Credit for the Elderly or Disabled. VITA clients also might qualify for bank accounts in a "clean slate" program that can help them fix their credit problems.
The local program has been growing since 2009, when United Way of the Lowcountry, in partnership with Beaufort County and the Alliance for Human Services, received a grant from the Internal Revenue Service. The partnership now includes University of South Carolina Beaufort, which provides interns who train as volunteers.
"With the help of our trained volunteers, individuals and families can qualify for an additional $450 to more than $5,600," said Theresa Jackson, who directs the local VITA program. "Last year VITA prepared 1,660 returns, resulting in an amazing $1.9 million returned to low-income working individuals and families right here in our community."
Clients at VITA sites can qualify for Clean Slate Checking, which allows an individual with poor credit or previous banking problems to get a fresh start and open a special checking account. This account offers unlimited check writing with no minimum balance, a debit card, no-fee ATMs, online banking and free e-Statements. After 12 consecutive months with no insufficient fund fees, the account can be upgraded to a regular checking account.
"We just completed our five-day training and have 42 volunteers certified and ready to man our sites for the 2011 tax season," Jackson said.
Taxpayers who come to the VITA sites for assistance should bring:
Local businesses and agencies also can arrange for a VITA-certified volunteer to come to their offices to do tax returns for employees or clients on site. For more information on the VITA program, call Theresa Jackson at 843-255-6051 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.