By Debra Hale-Shelton
This article was originally published in Arkansas Online April 16, 2017 at 3:09 a.m. and appeared in print in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Metro section on April 16, 2017.
CONWAY — Faulkner County resident Jennifer Morgan was behind on filing her income-tax returns — three years behind, counting the ones for 2016.
“I had been overwhelmed, especially once the second year built up,” Morgan said.
But as of last week, Morgan not only got current but learned that she’s due a refund.
“It’s not in my hands yet, but they say it’s coming,” she said.
Morgan can thank a new Conway-based organization, volunteers from the city’s three colleges and, of course, the Internal Revenue Service for that.
She can also thank Joyia Yorgey, who started the nonprofit Arkansas Asset Builders, which is a partner in the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program aimed at helping Americans in need file their income-tax returns.
“We have done about 150 tax returns this year. So, word is getting out,” Yorgey said.
Still, she said, “We have more volunteers that are available than we have clients sometimes. … But hopefully, the word of mouth” will attract others.
The volunteers include mostly accounting students from the University of Central Arkansas but also students from Hendrix College and Central Baptist College. A Hendrix faculty member and a UCA Spanish professor who serves as a translator also donated their time.
As executive director of Arkansas Asset Builders, Yorgey is its only employee and is paid mostly through private donations, though she hopes to obtain grant funding. The organization is located in another nonprofit’s building, City of Hope Outreach on Robins Street.
The IRS program with which Arkansas Asset Builders is affiliated offers free tax help to people who make $54,000 or less, people with disabilities, and limited English-speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their returns. IRS-certified volunteers who have been trained provide the help.
“In Faulkner County, over half of the households could potentially qualify,” Yorgey said.
This is the first tax season for the Arkansas program, which Yorgey started in Conway, its only location in the state.
Yorgery previously worked with similar IRS-connected programs in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
“We’ve had some clients [who have] had trouble with the IRS in the past,” she said. “They’ve had debt issues. They had maybe filed incorrectly in the past. So, being able to help them file correctly now, but also to educate them and [help them] understand their tax situation better” are benefits of the program.
“I think we’ve been really successful at doing that — making tax preparation less scary … for people who maybe have been burned in the past,” she said.
Spanish professor Lauren Miller’s language skills have been especially helpful. The organization had already helped 12 Spanish-speaking households as of Wednesday, Yorgey said.
Miller said one Spanish-speaking woman told her “that normally when she goes to get her tax [filings done], she just gives them her documents and she doesn’t know what’s going on at all.”
“This way, there was more interaction. She could understand the process,” Miller said.
Yorgey said most of the organization’s clients have probably paid to have their taxes prepared in the past.
In such cases, the businesses’ fees were often deducted from any refunds, effectively meaning smaller or no refunds.
UCA accounting major Noel Bilderback, 19, of Conway has been volunteering at the organization every Saturday morning since late January.
Bilderback said she thought the work would be good for her resume, to help “get my foot into my profession.”
But she also realizes that “taxes scare people” and said she “really wanted to help others.”
“We’ve had people say it’s been so helpful,” she said. “We teach them along the way so they understand exactly what ‘itemized deductions’ means, so it’s not just jargon.”
She said she also tries to help people learn ways to do better next year, by keeping track of their work-related mileage, for instance.
Yorgey said the program offers “real-world experience” for the student volunteers.
“They’re learning much more about the mechanics of tax preparation,” she said. “They understand at a much more practical level.”