April 22, 2024

Golden year volunteers: Jasper County RSVP team makes a difference in community

Director advocates for organization’s dedicated volunteers and effectiveness of programs

Bill Harrison, 94, of Newton has been a volunteer for Jasper County RSVP's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program for 20 years, and so far it looks like the program is well on its way to serving more than 600 client by the end of tax season.

Bill Harrison, 94, of Newton spends up to three days a week each tax season to help low-income Jasper County residents file their state and federal returns at no cost. He doesn’t ask for a paycheck. He doesn’t ask for a trophy, nor a medal. All he gets in return is the satisfaction of knowing he helped his fellow neighbors.

For the past 20 years Harrison has participated in Jasper County RSVP’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which offers free filings for individuals with an annual income of $64,000 or less and who have no rental property income (unless they are active military) and no farm income or farm losses.

So far, more than 400 residents have met with volunteer tax preparers to help them with their returns this year, putting Jasper County RSVP well on its way to meeting its goal to help 600 to 700 people by end of tax season. Last year alone, the program helped 585 clients secure more than $668,000 in refunds.

Prior to being a volunteer for Jasper County RSVP — which stands for Retired & Senior Volunteer Program — Harrison worked as an engineer for Maytag for more than 48 years, retiring at age of 65. But his tenure with volunteerism spans even longer. Harrison said he has been helping his community since he was 10.

“I have done volunteer work most of my life,” Harrison said. “I helped people by doing their yard work. Back in the day there were ashes to carry out and coal to get in, and water to be carried inside. There were always people that couldn’t do it themselves, so it was common for neighbors to look after them.”

When a farmer in Cincinnati, Iowa, Harrison’s hometown, suffered multiple broken bones, the then-14-year-old offered to help rake hay and complete all the other farm work for an entire year. As an adult, he spent nearly 30 years volunteering for the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts.

Volunteering just comes natural to Harrison, and it is in large part because of his upbringing and having the idea of selfless service instilled in him at a young age.

“It’s just what I was taught,” he said. “I just feel like I should do what I can.”

Harrison follows through with Jasper County RSVP’s goal to help people. As someone who has assisted folks for two decades, Harrison said it has become more and more difficult to file taxes as years go by. Even the team of volunteers have had to adapt to changing software and technology.

“When I was first recruited we were doing taxes with pen and paper, if you can imagine that,” he said. “For a couple of years that is the way we did it … The taxes today are more complicated. It’s more and more difficult for people to do their taxes. You almost need a computer these days. Not everyone can do that.”

For some people it feels almost impossible to file taxes by themselves, and the choice to pay a tax preparer may not always be an option. It can be costly. Sarah Patterson, director and grant manager of Jasper County RSVP, is thankful the program seems to be catching on more and more each year.

In addition to providing tax assistance, RSVP is also known for offering its Jasper County Ride program to veterans and individuals over age 65. Volunteers are reimbursed mileage for providing medical transportation, allowing people to make crucial visits or appointments to a doctor.

RSVP has numerous other programs, including a speech class for fifth and sixth graders. As a retired teacher, Patterson is a big believer in the class. She said the course would teach kids how to greet people and introduce themselves, look people in the eye when speaking and feel more comfortable with speaking.

Recent budget sessions with the Newton City Council have made officials take a hard look at finances this year, including possible reductions to partner agencies.

Patterson was aware Jasper County RSVP would likely see funding cuts from the city’s partner contributions. While initial proposals reduced the city’s contributions to RSVP from $17,500 down to zero, the council ultimately decided to provide the organization $5,000, to which Patterson was grateful for.

“It was certainly better than what we thought the outcome might be,” she said.

Officials with ISU Extension and Outreach Jasper County — which hosts RSVP in its offices inside DMACC Newton Campus — urged for the organization to still advocate for itself in front of the Newton City Council. Patterson did just that during the March 4 city council meeting during citizen participation.

“The City of Newton has supported us in the past and we would like to thank you for extending a proposed $5,000 this year and we respectfully ask tonight that you consider allotting more money to RSVP and the Ride Program before the final budget approval takes place,” Patterson said at the council meeting.

Volunteers at RSVP are 55 years old or older, and she said the organization’s goal is to use their wisdom and experience to make Jasper County and Newton a better place to live. RSVP is helping its community in the schools, the hospital, care facilities, the Salvation Army, congregate meals and more.

Patterson touted RSVP’s Ride Program and noted that the service is addressing eight of the top 12 concerns in the 2022 community needs assessment launched by MercyOne Newton Medical Center and Jasper County Public Health. It is a critical program for the citizens of Newton, she argued.

“Last year we provided 1,024 rides for clients,” Patterson said. “Our volunteers do get compensated for their mileage, which is where our big costs come into play. Last year our monthly mileage reimbursement ranged from $2,000 to $4,000 a month depending on the month.”

There are administrative costs to running the program and all drivers are properly vetted and insured.

“They use their own vehicles. They donate their own time. Which can be hours a day if they go to Iowa City; we have a ride leaving at 5 a.m. this week to take someone to a surgery,” Patterson said. “All of our programs are vital and we believe Jasper County and the City of Newton benefit from having RSVP.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.