If Davika Maharaj had gone to a commercial tax preparer this year, she says she would have paid about $200. Saving that $200, combined with her refund, will help pay off her $15,000 roof repair bill.

Patricia Bland needs the $300 she would have spent on commercial tax preparation to compensate for a lower refund she's anticipating, since she retired last year. She already knows her status means she won't get childcare credits for the two grandchildren she's raising.

Ms. Maharaj, Ms. Bland and many other people and families with annual incomes below $53,000 are grateful for the option to get their taxes prepared for free at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany.

The tax preparers are volunteers from Catholic Charities Tri-County Services, part of a network of organizations that offer the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program throughout the region.

People in need
"It's serving the poor and vulnerable," said Mary Olsen, VITA coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities. "It's financial literacy and asset-building, and that's part of what Catholic Charities is all about. It helps people make their money go further."

The program promises free services from IRS-certified volunteers, refunds in as little as 10 days and access to savings bonds. The Catholic Charities site runs from the end of January through April 15, with several weekly sessions at convenient hours.

Mrs. Olsen noted that a working family with three dependents can get as much as $6,143 back through the Earned Income Tax Credit: "That's going to go a long way to helping people out of poverty, pay the bills [and] put away for college."

Catholic Charities is part of Greater Capital Region CA$H, a coalition of community organizations, faith-based groups and other organizations that helps people increase financial self-sufficiency. The coalition provides free tax preparation, access to community resources, financial education and asset-building activities. It serves nine counties and has been overseeing the VITA program in five counties for about a decade.

The United Way acts as the lead agency and home base of the coalition, securing grants to operate the VITA program each season. Catholic Charities is one of five chapter hosts for CA$H, along with Circles of Mercy, a Catholic outreach center in Rensselaer.

Program's history
Catholic Charities has been providing free tax help for about 15 years - even before becoming part of the network, Mrs. Olsen said. Every year, about 25 people from local colleges, social work or the financial field volunteer their time, and about 20 students from Catholic Central High School in Troy volunteer to get real-life experience to supplement their accounting class.

Bianca Jordan is a senior business and finance major at The College of Saint Rose in Albany. Her professor recommended she volunteer for the program.

"I like to help people," Ms. Jordan said. "I'm able to work with people, communicate with different kinds of people [and] learn a lot about the software."

All volunteers have to pass an ethics exam, according to Beth Anne Smith, coordinator of the Catholic Charities program Wheels and Ways to Work and a member of the coalition's asset-building committee who has volunteered in VITA for nine seasons. She said volunteers pledge not to use their certification to make money on the side, fraternize with recipients, send refunds to their own accounts or accept tips. They also promise to keep all information confidential.

Helping hand
Last year, the coalition helped prepare 6,500 tax returns, totaling $20 million in refunds and credits.

Ms. Bland was using the program for the first time at the end of last month. She'd been referred to Catholic Charities at the suggestion of her usual tax preparation service.

"It's good for me this year; but next year, I'm going to see what happens," she said, referring to the effect of working again on her refund.

She's frustrated that, in her mind, retirees put more money into the system while they're working than what they get back: "I think they should give us what we work for. When you retire, you have to literally fight to get your money."