The first time Hugo Aguinaga walked into an Accounting Aid Society (AAS) office, it was for help with his own taxes. Today, Hugo serves as the tax site coordinator for AAS’s Southwest Detroit location. “When I joined this team, it was more than a job, it was an opportunity to pay it forward to my community,” he says.
Hugo grew up in the neighborhood, which includes Mexicantown. Born in Mexico, he was raised in Detroit and earned his degree from Wayne State University, specializing in science and accounting with a focus on accounting.
Initially, following graduation, he worked in accounting for organizations such as American Axle, which, he says, helped prepare him for his work today, training him in how to do tax research and to use the tools that are most helpful to the clients he serves today.
He made the jump to AAS because of “its mission and purpose, and I’m part of this community. I knew I could add my bilingual skills to the team, and I know that the Hispanic community here is underserved.”
A large part of that, he says, is the language barrier. “It’s a barrier that doesn’t allow people to take advantage of all the services that are available to them. I can come to the office and answer calls in Spanish and do returns in Spanish. This is not just a 9-5 job. It’s making a difference and it’s very gratifying.”
Language is just one of the barriers that can prevent clients from taking advantage of AAS’s free services. The other big issue is often trust, but speaking the same language can help mitigate that concern.
“Especially for people who are undocumented, there is a worry about the sensitive information they may need to share,” Hugo says. “People are reluctant to do it. Coming from my background, though, I know the level of trust that can be built through language and how it can help.” Hugo’s fellow team members in the AAS office are also fluent in Arabic and Bengali, allowing them to build positive connections with even more clients.
Hugo shares the story of a family of seven – including five children — from Honduras who were working to get their legal status situated. They came to AAS to start filing tax returns and Hugo and his team were able to get their ITIN numbers and filed three years of returns for them to help get their immigration journey underway and payment plans were implemented with the IRS so the family’s resources would not be stretched beyond capacity.
“When they came to us, they were desperate,” says Hugo. “They had no money to pay for any of these services, which would have cost them between $3,000 and $5,000.” This is the kind of service that allows clients who have been in dire situations reclaim some peace of mind.
“I’ve had clients tell me they can’t sleep at night because they’re so worried,” says Hugo. “It’s wonderful to see the joy when they get a nice refund or have past due situations resolved. This is more than a job, it’s really making a difference for people. We’ve been around for 50 years, helping families sleep at night.”