Since 1994, Ladder Up has been providing free tax return preparation, college financial aid application assistance and financial literacy services to the greater Chicago area. I spoke with Jennifer Lambert, tax program manager at Ladder Up, to learn more about the organization and her work.
Ladder Up offers free tax preparation through the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, serving individuals making up to $30,000 annually and families making up to $55,000 annually. Ladder Up mobilizes and trains more than 1,000 volunteers at 16 sites in the greater Chicago area over the 12-week tax season to help members of the community file their taxes. According to Lambert, during this last program year, the organization prepared 11,275 tax returns, helping clients access $17.5 million in refunds.
Lambert spoke of the huge impact Ladder Up has on its client base. “Often, clients will come to one of our sites, and a volunteer will find that their return has been done incorrectly – and they paid to get it completed. When they come to us and we fix their return, they often see a huge increase in their refund. I worked on one of these returns where my client’s children weren’t being claimed for the Earned Income Credit. When I fixed it, I was able to increase the refund by $5,000. It’s rewarding to be able to create such huge benefits for our clients.”
Ladder Up has used Intuit® ProConnect™ ProSeries® for its tax assistance program since 2006. “ProSeries has been beneficial for us in a lot of ways,” said Lambert. “It’s user friendly, so our volunteers can understand it even if they don’t use it in their own tax practices. We feel confident that the tax returns are correct, and the program runs smoothly, from data entry to e-file. ProSeries has made it easy to train volunteers to become proficient at the software and serve our clients.”
While tax assistance is Ladder Up’s signature offering, the organization also offers its clients college financial aid application assistance and financial literacy services, including one-on-one coaching and workshops about credit, budgeting, savings and more. “Our three types of services complement each other. We try to have a holistic offering with our services so that we empower people to do well financially in all aspects of their lives,” said Lambert.
What’s the best part of working for Ladder Up? According to Lambert, it’s the clients. “It’s a very rewarding experience to work at one of our sites. Sometimes, our clients are in total awe that we’re there to help them, free of charge.”
Lambert sees this passion in her volunteers as well. “A lot of our volunteers come back year after year, and they start to see not only the same clients, but after a while, even their children, time and again. Those relationships are what our staff and all of our volunteers are here for.”