JAMES “JEFF” CARNEY, former Rhode Island director of the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program, recently received the AARP Rhode Island Andrus Award for Community Service at a luncheon ceremony at Quidnessett Country Club in North Kingstown. Carney, who worked for more than 30 years in the military and defense industries, joined the Tax-Aide program in 2011 as a counselor before serving as state coordinator from 2012-2017.
What initially attracted you to wanting to volunteer with AARP? Having recently retired, I needed something to occupy my spare time. My wife saw a recruitment item in the newspaper seeking tax-preparation volunteers in Newport County. Only after I signed up did I understand the AARP connection. That was eight years ago. Since then, I’ve become an advocate for Tax-Aide, which focuses on [low- to moderate-income] families and the elderly, as well as the foundation’s many programs seeking to end senior poverty.
Describe some initiatives you introduced with the Tax-Aide program. What I’ve focused on is standardizing training across the state … a common syllabus for our multiple training locations. … In the fall, our focus is on understanding the tax forms, the tax law and utilizing our software. In January, we focus on tax-law changes, software changes and certification. Two years ago, I initiated a New Volunteer Orientation class. This orientation serves two purposes: First, it provides an introduction of Tax-Aide to the prospective volunteer … what they can expect from the program, what the program expects of them and some fundamental elements of tax preparation, and second, it eases the volunteer into tax preparation gradually. As a result, our dropout rate is very low.
In what ways have you inspired other volunteers based on your work with AARP? Perhaps, making myself available to all our volunteers … and by leading by example. I know this sounds hokey, but the best leaders do much more through demonstration than by telling. Tax preparation isn’t for everyone. Our volunteers are part subject-matter expert and part confidant/“social worker.” Through personal experience and real-life examples, I think that I have been able to instill confidence in our volunteers and enable them to enjoy a very rewarding volunteer opportunity.
What advice would you give to individuals who want to get involved in volunteering? The best advice would be to try to do something that you like to do. Volunteering should not be a chore, but something that makes you feel good about yourself, and makes you want to come back tomorrow. Volunteering is your way of giving back to your community. If it is not a “feel good” proposition, simply move on to something else.