When people in the Mobile area contact the United Way of Southwest Alabama (UWSWA) for income tax assistance, the volunteer who helps them will either be Brad Martin or someone he trained.
“We prepare and file federal and state returns for low-income families and individuals, persons with disabilities and persons with limited English-speaking proficiency,” Martin said. “My role is to train and coordinate the volunteers.”
Martin is the program coordinator for UWSWA’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. He is also blind, a disability he says he learned as a child to overcome.
“It’s all how you’re raised,” Martin said. “I have a sister that is four years older than I am who is not blind and we were raised the same way. I grew up in classrooms with sighted students. Yes, there were other blind students around, but they were not the majority of the people I interacted with so I learned to function in the sighted world.”
Martin attended Spring Hill College where he got a degree in radio and TV. He worked in the Radio Reading Service at WHIL-FM, the public radio station on campus, until 2011 when the station transitioned to become an affiliate of Alabama Public Radio.
“I had to find a new job,” Martin said. “Since my role had involved volunteers, I decided I wanted to find a job in volunteer coordinating.”
Martin went to work for HandsOn South Alabama (HOSA) which, among other things, asked him to take charge of its tax assistance program.
“I knew nothing about taxes except that when I did my own return, I just put the numbers in that the machine asked for and a magic number popped out and that was my refund,” Martin said. “That was the extent of my tax knowledge.”
Martin quickly enrolled in IRS training and certification. He did so well that the next year he was told he needed to teach others.
“I was really bad at it,” Martin said. “I didn’t know how to teach, so I had to figure out new strategies.”
One of those strategies came from his experiences of reading “Dear Ann Landers” articles to blind listeners via the Radio Reading Service at WHIL-FM.
“I came up with this idea of reading letters written to ‘Dear Iris’ and then challenging my students to come up with appropriate tax advice,” Martin said. “We started doing more of this hands-on training and less lecture and the program grew.”
In May 2013, HOSA merged with UWSWA, quickly expanding Martin’s base of volunteers and clients.
“We have about 30 tax preparers – all volunteers, and we do more than 1,100 tax preparations per year,” Martin said. “It’s really rewarding.”
Martin says the program would not succeed without the help from volunteers.
“We couldn’t do this without volunteers, and it’s not just the volunteer tax preparers,” Martin said. “This phone rings off the wall. People call and want appointments and I cannot answer all of those calls, so we have volunteers that come in, including volunteers from Alabama Power, and answer our phones and schedule our appointments and make sure that people know what to bring to their tax appointments. We value the partnership with Alabama Power because we cannot answer all of these calls.”
Martin also says he works hard to earn the trust of his clients.
“In nine years of doing tax returns, I’ve never had anyone question my ability to do their taxes or answer their questions,” Martin said. “I feel like I have to be very good at what I do to overcome any concerns people might have, but I think I’ve done that and it helps that I really enjoy it.”