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Brooklyn food pantry helps keep tax refunds in communities that need it most

Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger offers a free tax service for anyone, including families, that earn less than $63,000 a year.

Ben Franklin said that “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Another certainty that likely wasn’t around when he made that statement in 1789 is the often exorbitant cost of getting said taxes done each year.

Many tax services often charge clients a fee based on the percentage of their returns, which can be detrimental to city taxpayers already struggling to make ends meet.

That’s why Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, a 20-year-old food pantry in Brooklyn, took action about seven years ago to provide a free tax preparation service as well as help with SNAP enrollment.

“Funds that could have otherwise gone into hands that needed it the most, they weren’t accessing it,” said Dr. Melony Samuels, BSCAH founder and executive director. “We started to train our staff to be tax preparers. It is like a true tax service — and it’s free of cost. It’s treating families with dignity and understanding what poverty is like.”

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Longtime client Janette, a Queens resident whose whole family now uses BSCAH’s service, used to pay more than $300 for tax preparations.

“It’s not easy when you’re expecting the money and so much has to come out of your money,” she said. “This being free is what drew me to it.”

BSCAH staffers take yearly IRS exams to provide the service and “cannot do taxes without being certified,” Samuels said.

Last year, BSCAH served more than 3,400 people from Far Rockaway, Queens, and the South Bronx to all across Brooklyn, and prepared more than $2.6 million in returns. Tax preparers also go to more than a dozen underserved areas like senior centers and adult daycare facilities, and BSCAH also partners with banks to provide financial support and advice for the community as well.

“They provide them with financial literacy, and tell them how to spend, not to get rid of the money as fast as you can, but how to use it to benefit your family or save it for a rainy day,” Samuels said.

Having the tax money go back into communities that need it is a very welcome site for Samuels, who founded BSCAH in 1998.

“This neighborhood seems so buzzing and booming, but 20 years ago, it was somewhere you didn’t want to walk, where you saw poverty that was obviously there and you didn’t have to look for it,” she said. “To see what a small grassroots organization has done considering the gentrification to get that money back into the community makes a difference.”

New Yorkers interested in using the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger’s free tax service do not have to be a patron of the food pantry, but do need to earn less than $63,000 as an individual or family, said Daniel Wright, benefits access coordinator.

“We have an open-door policy, and we’re here,” Samuels added.