“I love tax season,” Kisha Hull says, and she means it. A New Haven social worker, Hull (pictured, left) is spending Tuesday evenings for the next few weeks preparing tax returns as a volunteer for VITA. “You learn so much, and then you can help your family members, you can help yourself,” Hull says. “It’s a tool that’s been put in my tool box, and I am so happy that I did it.”

VITA, or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, is an IRS program that “offers free tax help to people who generally make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities and limited English speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns,” its website says. VITA volunteers undergo annual training and must pass tests of basic and advanced knowledge in order to be certified by the IRS to prepare returns.

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Sitting at her borrowed desk at Community Action Agency’s Whalley Avenue office on a recent Tuesday evening, Hull pulls out her 2017 IRS manual and flips through several scenarios intended to brush up volunteers’ knowledge after eight months away from tax talk. Her copy is full of post-its and notes to herself, and she speaks with ease about earned income credits, American opportunity credits, lifetime learning credits, W-2s, Schedule Cs, interest, dividends and more. The training, she says, is “vigorous.”

Tax preparers don’t have to be licensed in Connecticut. In fact, pretty much anyone can hang out a sign at tax time, says Jim Horan, CEO of Connecticut Association for Human Services (CAHS), a “hybrid organization” that does advocacy work at the state capitol and coordinates programs on the ground on behalf of low-income residents. VITA is its largest program.

“We want to help low-income people save on tax preparation and also to make sure that they get their maximum refund,” Horan explains. “Go to a VITA site. You have people who are certified by the IRS, it’s completely free, there’s absolutely no charge and no chance of a charge.” He’s referring to the fact that some tax preparation companies offer “free” returns but only for the simplest of scenarios, so consumers may be giving up more than they get. In particular, inexperienced or shady tax preparers sometimes neglect to file for the earned income tax and child tax credits, which Horan says can be “substantial.”

CAHS coordinates 59 VITA sites in southern Connecticut and Litchfield County for the IRS, including 11 public-facing sites in New Haven. Two other coalitions cover the rest of the state. CAHS partners with United Way, which provides some funding and marketing support for VITA and helps set up local sites, including those in New Haven, with attention to neighborhoods that may be underserved.

Back on Whalley Avenue, taxpayers sit in a waiting room while an informational video shares tax information and Cassandra Floyd, a 28-year employee of Community Action who stays after work to volunteer, photocopies documents behind the service counter. “I really enjoy helping people,” Floyd says. “They need a smiling face and someone to greet them and be pleasant with them.”

At Community Action, clients are required to make an appointment, and Hull says they’re full for the season. But some other New Haven sites, like the Ives Main Library and Wilson Branch Library, run on a first-come, first-served basis. Many of those waiting this evening seem tired after a long day and a little bit nervous, but Hull puts her next client at ease with a laugh before she gets down to business. She pulls up information from a prior return on VITA’s IRS software and begins with a question about dependents. A more complicated return might take an hour, Hull says, but sometimes she can complete them more efficiently. When she finishes this return, a supervisor will double-check it. Six other volunteers are working in neighboring cubicles, and together they’ll serve a total of 20 people this evening.

That may not sound like a lot, but the numbers add up. According to Horan, last year 558 volunteers in CAHS’s coalition helped taxpayers file 15,000 returns. Next year a new state law that CAHS helped to pass will begin regulating tax preparers, Horan says. That may begin to solve the problem of fly-by-night tax preparation, but it’s clear VITA has its own challenges. Sites are constantly in flux, Horan says, and funding is tight. That makes volunteers like Floyd and Hull all the more valuable.

Although not everyone can take advantage of VITA’s services, taxpayers earning up to $66,000 annually have another option:, offered by United Way “as part of our fight for the financial stability of every person in every community,” the website says. Taxpayers fill out their own returns using software powered by H&R Block, but IRS-certified specialists are available online to assist.

Hull may be the rare person who looks forward to tax season, but with the help of programs like these, the specter of April 15—or, this year, April 17—seems a little less daunting.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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