Hector Alicea works hard for a living. The 41-year-old was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in the U.S. for four years. For the last two months, he's made the trip from his home in Jamestown to Dunkirk to help package ice cream at Fieldbrook Farms.
"It's a long drive, and it costs me a lot of gas money to get to work every day," said Alicea. "I have a limited income, and that's why the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program is something I really was excited to take advantage of."
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, better known as VITA, is a national initiative that mobilizes volunteers across the country to help income-eligible residents file their state and federal taxes for free. In Chautauqua County, the program's impact has been far-reaching. Over the past decade, thousands of people have been helped, and millions of dollars have been pumped back into the local economy.
VITA volunteer Andrea McLean, left, is happy to help Hector Alicea file his returns. Alicea says he came to the U.S. to find a better-paying job so he could support his 3-year-old daughter. He says VITA isn’t something that was offered in Puerto Rico, but he’s glad it’s offered here.
The United Way of Southern Chautauqua County helps facilitate the program. VITA Coordinator Rose Lancione says every year from January until mid-April, local VITA sites are buzzing with activity.
"Our volunteers are truly the life-blood behind this program," said Lancione.
"Without them, this service wouldn't be possible. Every year we count on our volunteers more and more too. As the program becomes more popular, our volunteers become more necessary."
One of those volunteers is Andrea McLean. This is her fourth year with VITA, and she says the simple satisfaction of helping someone in need drives her passion for the program.
"I'm re-paid with the smiles I get," said McLean. "When you help find extra money for people, you get a real rush out of it. Their joy becomes your joy. It's amazing how thankful these people are too. I'm just honored to be able to help out."
And helping out is somewhat contagious at a VITA site, particularly this year. Rose Lancione says through February, volunteers have filed 30 more returns than last year, and have logged 200 volunteer hours.
"These men and women who help out put in extremely long hours filing these returns, many times after putting in a long day of work themselves," said Lancione. "They ask for nothing in return other than knowing they're providing a much-needed service for people - people like Hector Alicea."
"This is my first year going through the program. I heard about it from a friend of mine," said Alicea. "It's really nice to get this service that would normally cost me at least a couple hundred bucks to have done."
Alicea says he came to the U.S. to find a better paying job so he could support his 3-year-old daughter. He says VITA isn't something that was offered in Puerto Rico, but he's glad it's offered here.
"I'm a single dad with a limited income. This program will free up extra money for me to pay the rent and to buy my daughter some clothes," said Alicea.
But taking care of immediate needs is just part of VITA. Rose Lancione says every person who goes through the program also fills out a questionnaire that will hopefully link them to other programs that can help them in the long run.
"We don't just want to provide a service, hand out a refund and never talk to these people until next year," said Lancione.
"We want to be able to provide more long-term financial help, such as how to create a budget and live within that budget. Providing tax help is just part of what VITA is all about. More importantly, we want to provide financial freedom."
VITA is sponsored by the Chautauqua County Earned Income Tax Credit Coalition. For more information, contact the United Way of Southern Chautauqua County at 483-1561, or visit www.uwayscc.org.