AARP Tax-Aide volunteers at libraries translate IRS-speak

AARP Tax-Aide volunteers Elena Potapchenko (left) and Nasreen Bhatti get a lot of satisfaction from helping clients – and they get to keep their shirts.

By Kristin Kinnamon
Special to Sno-Isle Libraries

Lynnwood resident Zebib Negash speaks five languages – English, Swedish, Danish, Arabic and Tigrinya, the main language of Eritrea. But she does not speak IRS.

The language of the U.S. tax code is foreign to many people, regardless of English proficiency. You might be able to claim a “qualifying child” who is actually an adult and a “qualifying dependent” may not need to be related to you.

This unfamiliar terminology is why Negash is one of the many making a special visit to the Lynnwood Library this tax season. It is the busiest AARP Tax-Aide site in Snohomish County.

“People know they have to file a tax return and they are afraid to tackle it themselves,” said ARRP volunteer Pat Hannifin, who coordinates training for all AARP sites in the county and volunteers at Lynnwood. Hannifin and her husband, Emmett, have both volunteered at the Lynnwood Library site since they retired from the IRS seven and eight years ago, respectively.

“We do speak IRS,” she said. “We understand the way the IRS talks and then try to translate it to regular English.”

Many clients in Lynnwood are repeat customers. Amy Northfield raised her kids near the Alderwood Mall, but moved to Mukilteo when the traffic got too bad. Her daughter, Jolene Power of Everett, still brings mom back to Lynnwood for tax help. “It’s something really nice that they offer for the seniors,” Power said.

The AARP tax program is open to people of all ages and income levels, but focuses its resources on people who are elderly or on lower incomes. The program operates twice a week in Lynnwood, with time to help 50-60 people each day. Other libraries and the United Way also offer free tax help around the region.

Help from library staff

For Hannifin, the partnership with the Lynnwood Library is special. Library staff set up client appointments and explain needed paperwork right at the front desk. A library volunteer makes follow-up reminder calls.

The extra effort from library staff reduces no-shows and helps clients arrive prepared with the right documents. It enables the AARP volunteers to be more efficient, and to help more people. More than 800 clients are expected to file tax returns through the Lynnwood Library site by the deadline of April 17.

It takes 27 volunteers each working at least one four-hour shift a week to make that happen. To even become an AARP tax-aide preparer takes more than 40 hours of training. More than half of the volunteers Hannifin works with are retired, but like their clients, they are a diverse group. One young mother of three emigrated from Russia last year. AARP volunteers did her taxes in 2017 and now she volunteers to help others.

Library manager Michael Delury is happy to support the dedicated volunteers.
“It’s all part of being citizens and being civically engaged, Delury said. “The library is assisting people with something they absolutely need to do.”

A family of volunteers

Hannifin and her husband moved from south Snohomish County to Snohomish a year ago, but still volunteer in Lynnwood. She describes the feeling among the volunteers and clients as a family atmosphere, with long-time volunteers watching the children of clients grow up and clients noticing when a volunteer is missing.

“It’s one of the most rewarding volunteer jobs that I’ve ever done,” Hannifin said. “You’re doing a service they can’t do themselves – they don’t have the confidence in it.”

Nasreen Bhatti is in her first year as the AARP volunteer who checks people in for their Tax-Aide appointments. “I get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping people,” she said.
Bhatti speaks four languages, which helps in serving the diverse clientele in Lynnwood where English is not the primary language in one of three households, according to the U.S. Census.

Next year, after more hours of volunteer training and passing IRS certification tests, she hopes to add “IRS” to her list of languages.