United Way’s undercover boss helps locals with tax returns

United Way of Martin County President/CEO Carol G. Houwaart-Diez spends her days advocating for Martin County’s most vulnerable residents by raising vital funds that are invested in local health and human service programs. What many don’t know is that for the last several months, Houwaart-Diez has been moonlighting every Wednesday evening as a volunteer tax preparer for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA). For more than a decade, United Way of Martin County has offered free tax preparation through the VITA program to help residents with an income of $54,000 or less keep more of their hard-earned money. 
Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening during tax season United Way of Martin County’s office was transformed into a VITA tax site. Five IRS certified volunteer tax preparers, under the guidance of site supervisor Mark Chittum, former administrator of the Martin County Health Department, helped 267 individuals and families receive a total of 298,585 in refunds while saving more than $70,000 in tax preparation fees. 
Houwaart-Diez said she was inspired to volunteer as a tax preparer so that she could meet the individuals being served by United Way and its partner agencies while also using her financial background to directly help the ALICE population: Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed. United Way’s ALICE studies have found that while only 9 percent are living in poverty, 32 percent of families in Martin County are above the poverty line but still struggling despite being employed. The VITA program is one way that United Way works to help ALICE families become more financially secure.
In what could be likened to a local version of Undercover Boss, Houwaart-Diez’s clients did not know that she was the CEO of United Way. One individual in particular made a lasting impression. “Despite the fact that she was working two part time jobs she owed several hundred dollars on her tax bill. She was distraught because she didn’t know how she was going to pay it,” Houwaart-Diez said. Houwaart-Diez provided the client with information about local resources, such as food pantries, that would help her cover basic cost of living while she repaid her tax bill. “There are so many misconceptions about people who are struggling to make ends meet, but these individuals are working hard and truly want to better their situation. For me, it reinforced the important work being done by United Way and our partner agencies.”
Houwaart-Diez said there were many uplifting stories as well. “You can always make lemonade out of lemons and I definitely saw that as a common thread among the clients that I met,” she said. 
While she plans to volunteer as a tax preparer again next year, she also hopes to attract additional volunteers so that more individuals can be served through this program. “We start taking appointments in January and the time slots fill up quickly. We would love to have enough resources to serve every individual who needs help,” she said. For more information about volunteering for the VITA program next year, contact United Way at 772-283-4800.