United Way Tax Volunteers Find Rich Rewards in Helping Others

In October of 2022, after years of teaching and serving as an administrator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business — and after 27 years of leadership in Birmingham, Stephen Yoder, a lawyer by training, finally retired.

But even after making that decision, Yoder, who has a long track record of community service in the city, still knew his work was not done.

This year, Yoder has served as a key volunteer for United Way of Central Alabama’s (UWCA’s) Free Tax Preparation program. He said his work is inspired by his years of teaching.

“I used to teach strategy to business students, and one of the basic principles of setting a strategy for a business is to match outside needs with inside core competencies,” Yoder said, “so I think we should be applying those same strategy techniques as individuals.”

A longtime UWCA volunteer, Yoder saw helping people with their taxes through this program, which has been operating for 17 years, as one way he could use his thinking to help provide for an unmet need in the community.

In preparation for the next tax season, which begins in early 2024, UWCA is seeking volunteers to attend its first volunteer orientation session on October 20th.  During the event, participants will meet the United Way team, share some refreshments and learn what it’s like to join the tax-prep team.

In addition to the orientation in October, there will be another on November 7th, both of which will start at 9 a.m. and take place on UWCA’s campus at 3600 8th Avenue South in Birmingham.

While Yoder said he had never done other people’s taxes, he was excited by learning to master the system of preparing taxes. That learning was made easy by the support he received from others working in the tax program, he said.

“I had a lot to learn, and like any other educational process, you can’t learn it from a book. You have to learn on the job, and, fortunately, I had good people around me.”

Hayley Kennedy, a UAB junior studying accounting, also volunteered for the first time with the tax-prep program this year. In addition to the training, Kennedy said plenty of support is provided to new volunteers each day they are serving.

“Any time you are volunteering in the office,” Kennedy said, “there are always multiple people around to answer any questions you have, and everyone is super friendly and open to helping you.”

The work itself was a lot of fun, Kennedy said, specifically because clients’ unique needs require that tax preparers, both new and experienced, work together to best serve them.

“Sometimes, I would get a return that would be difficult, and I would go ask one of the retired CPAs and they, too, would be a bit stunned,” Kennedy said, “and we’d have to research together how to solve the problem.”

Richard Force is one of those retired Certified Public Accountants. As a volunteer, he said he appreciated the flexibility of United Way’s scheduling. Just after the start of 2023, Force became a new grandfather and UWCA made it easy to balance volunteering with family time.

“I tried to set aside certain days when I wasn’t playing granddad so that I could come down to volunteer,” Force said. “It was primarily in the afternoons, but I had no problems with setting the schedule.”

A veteran of accounting, Force said he was struck by the appreciation that the tax clients expressed during the process and similarly loved working with them.

“I told clients, ‘You’re doing more for me than I’m doing for you. I’m happy to be here to help you,’” Force said. “There’s nothing like helping someone — who really needs your help — to help your self-esteem.”

Through volunteering earlier this year, Force also said he was exposed to people with unique financial situations, meaning he also got the opportunity to continue to broaden his understanding of tax law, even after retiring.

“I was actually dealing with situations that were new,” Force said, “and there was probably not a single day that I didn’t learn something new about taxes that, really, I wouldn’t have at a CPA firm.”

While Force’s financial experience was a definite plus to the United Way team, all volunteers will receive training to become IRS-certified in tax preparation.

To register for one of the upcoming volunteer orientations, go to https://uwca.givepulse.com/event/387684-Free-Tax-Preparation-Orientation.