Pleasant surprise hidden in another bad ranking of R.I.

by Providence Journal   •  

Yet another national survey — this one called the Opportunity Index — ranks Rhode Island at the back of the pack in New England.

The index, created by Opportunity Nation — a coalition of business owners, educators and community leaders — measured economic mobility and found Rhode Island lags its neighbors because of its high unemployment and poverty rates and the large number of residents ages 16-24 who are out of school and not working. The state also is dragged down by low numbers of on-time high school graduates and people with associate’s degrees.

When I dug through the other indicators used to compile the index, however, I found a surprise.

One in four adults in Rhode Island said they did volunteer work in the last year. That’s on par with the national average and actually an increase from a few years ago.

The volunteerism here is noteworthy because it comes at a time when many Rhode Islanders are still struggling in a tough economy. They are working long hours, or two jobs, to pay the bills, while trying to find time for the kids and scrambling to keep their lives together.

Yet, they also make the time to help others. Just in the last week, adult leaders fanned out across the state to supervise the Boy Scouts’ annual food drive. Others ran in 5K races to help pay hospital bills for friends and colleagues. Still others cleared debris from Weekapaug Beach.

Another, less visible group of volunteers gathered last week in the auditorium at William Hall Library in Cranston. On a beautiful autumn afternoon, they studied a PowerPoint presentation about the complexities of the tax code. They spent several hours learning how to help other Rhode Islanders fill out their state and federal tax returns.

The 20 volunteers who gathered at the library are among about 150 people who give up their time every year to work for the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide Program. They provide one-on-one help free-of-charge to low and middle-income taxpayers of all ages, with special attention to those 60 or older. More than two-thirds of the volunteers are retirees. Others are non-working spouses. Some of the volunteers are still employed or have worked in the past as accountants, lawyers and business managers.

Jeff Carney, 68, of Saunderstown, is the Rhode Island state coordinator.

After long careers as a naval officer and a defense industry contractor, he volunteered for the tax-aide program five years ago after he saw an ad in the newspaper.

“I was at home driving my wife crazy,” he said. “I have done my own taxes for years and I signed up. … As other people left the program, I moved up into the leadership.”

Carney coordinates the statewide organization that divides Rhode Island into five districts, largely along county lines. The districts are broken down into 42 local sites, usually set up in public buildings, where people can go for help filling out their state and local taxes.

Nationwide, the program has an $11.5-million budget, derived from grants from AARP and the Internal Revenue Service.

Each of the program’s unpaid volunteers is required to go through a training program, like the one at the library, and must be certified annually by taking an IRS exam.

Bob Schnebly, 65, of North Kingstown, first volunteered six years ago after retiring as a systems analyst/developer for MetLife, where he worked in information technology for 27 years. He had also worked for the IRS in his 20s as a tax examiner.

He serves as a tax counselor and an “electronic return originator” who e-files the state and federal returns and makes sure they are accepted by the government.

So why does he volunteer?

“I find it satisfying to help people, especially doing taxes, which people have to do but don’t like to do and may not understand everything,” he said.

He recalled helping a widow who was filing a tax return without her husband for the first time. Schnebly’s job was partly doing the technical work to complete the return and partly reassuring her that “this is not going to be a problem, and we will help you through it,” he said.

“People thanking you and helping them is the best reward we can get, along with some homemade treats some of our regulars bring us,” he said.

Another volunteer, Jay McBride, 69, of Bristol, said he feels a “tremendous sense of satisfaction in helping out veterans.”

After a 27-year career in the Coast Guard, he was working as a volunteer at the VA Hospital in Providence in 2013 when he saw a guy in a T-shirt with the words, “AARP Tax Aide” and asked him, “What’s that all about?”

He learned about the program, liked what he heard and agreed to help out.

“I was doing my taxes for myself, and after I went through the training, I felt I could offer some service to the guys,” he said.

Carney, the state coordinator, said he is always recruiting new volunteers because “people retire from their retirement job.”

The annual attrition rate is 8 percent, he said, and this year he especially needs volunteers to staff sites in South County.

Volunteers at all skill levels are welcome. Carney said it helps if the volunteers feel motivated to do the work and are computer-literate, because the returns are filed electronically and some of the training is online.

This year, there is a need for supervisors at the district and county levels, as well as technology and training specialists.

The commitment includes completing the training and agreeing to work a total of about 40 hours during the tax season, from Feb. 1 to April 16, or about four hours a week.

“You learn as you go through the training,” said Rosemary Howbrigg, 67, of Charlestown, a volunteer for the last five years.

“You become familiar with the terminology, but you you don’t have to learn everything. You just have to know where to look to find what you need,” said Howbrigg, a former computer scientist.

Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more about the tax-aide program can contact Carney at (401) 294-6775 or (401) 932-9868 (cell) or by email at

“It’s really an opportunity to serve,” Carney said.

Rhode Islanders and their leaders know they have their work cut out to pull the state up from the bottom of national rankings.

But they should also remember that volunteerism — and the idea that we are all in this together — is a strength we share. And in that area, Rhode Islanders stack up pretty well.

That’s something to build on.

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