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Many happy (tax) returns and other helpful acts by former counselor

New York Teacher
Theresa Hambel

Among other volunteer work, former school counselor Theresa Hambel helps people do their taxes at a senior resource center in Wilmington, North Carolina.

While many people were in the midst of holiday preparations or celebrations on Dec. 23, UFT retiree Theresa Hambel was taking a six-hour online course on changes to federal tax law, such as an increased tax credit for energy-efficiency improvements to your home.

It was part one of her annual training as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program tax preparer through the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center in Wilmington, North Carolina. In January, she completed more training online and at the center. All told, she spent at least 20 hours preparing for tax season.

The 75-year-old former school counselor and math teacher has been doing her own taxes since she was 18, and she began volunteering 10 years ago because she knew this type of work would be a good match for her talents.

“Training and testing are cumbersome, but the actual preparation of taxes is very fulfilling because you have a lot of people who come in frightened, scared or confused,” Hambel said.

It’s gratifying, she said, “when I know I’ve helped somebody not be so afraid of taxes.”

Before becoming a school counselor at PS 12 in Brooklyn in 1998, Hambel served as a Catholic school math teacher and then worked for eight years with teachers, students and parents in New York City public schools with the nonprofit Educators for Social Responsibility, now called Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. She retired from the Department of Education in 2005 after her now-late husband, Jim Hambel, a school counselor at PS 91 in Brooklyn, became sick with cancer.

Hambel, a lifelong New Yorker, moved to North Carolina in 2013, a year after her husband died. “I love it here,” she said. “It’s such a nice, calmer place. There are more and more New Yorkers coming down here now.”

Hambel looked for opportunities to give back to her new community and found them at the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center. Many of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program tax preparers are retirees, including former accountants and teachers, she said.

“We get a great deal of retirees, senior citizens, folks who maybe want to get a little bit of tax back that was taken out of a pension that they received,” Hambel said. “But we do have the gamut. We also have families with children.”

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program asks volunteers to spend eight hours a week preparing and reviewing tax returns during tax season, but it’s often more, Hambel said. Some returns are simple and can be completed in a half hour, while others can take several hours. As an experienced tax preparer, she also checks her fellow volunteers’ work. She estimates she prepares about 40 tax returns and checks about 110 tax returns each year.

For six years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hambel volunteered outside tax season as a counselor for the national Seniors’ Health Insurance Information Program, advising Medicare beneficiaries and caregivers about Medicare and long-term care insurance. Hambel did outreach in adult living communities in North Carolina between May and November. Now, on an informal basis, she helps some retirees navigate Medicare each year.

Hambel is also the financial secretary for her church and serves on its service-outreach and racial justice and equity teams.

“I don’t need the money, and I’m not in it for the money,” she said of her various activities. “I’m in it to help people.”