Community Voice: Cody Van Felden - United Ways of California

Community Voice: Cody Van Felden

Monday, July 1, 2024

Read time: 5 minutes

Sacramento, California

Cody Van Felden is a new college graduate who pursued her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Sacramento State while juggling multiple part-time and contract jobs (she recently had as many as eight different roles at once!), advocating for causes she’s passionate about, mentoring foster youth, and—most importantly—being a mom. She’s used Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), has been a VITA volunteer, and is now serving as a United Ways of California Ambassador, using her voice to show community perspectives on a variety of areas we work with. This spring, United Ways of California presented Cody with a Live United Award for her continued advocacy. Here, Cody shares about why she’s passionate about advocacy, supporting foster youth, and benefits for families. 

I have a three-year-old daughter, and being her mom has, without a doubt, been my greatest accomplishment.

When I look back on my life, I am reminded how far I have come. I experienced a lot of injustice as a foster youth. In just the last decade, I’ve experienced homelessness—first as a minor and then as a young adult—as well as unbearable trauma.

But in the last four years, I’ve become a mom. I’ve graduated with three Associate degrees and a Bachelor’s degree. I’ve been interviewed by national and international media outlets like Good Morning America, presented at conferences, and testified at the state capitol. I’ve partnered with countless organizations to fight for what I believe in, including working with John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) and United Ways of California to advocate for foster youth, raise awareness around tax credits, ensure people with lived experiences have a voice, and more.

I have dedicated my work and my life to supporting foster youth to ensure the injustice I experienced in the foster system does not continue. 

I also feel if I had known as much about tax credits when I was experiencing homelessness as I do now, things may have been different for me. I benefit so much from tax credits now—they’re allowing me to make big steps toward giving my family stability. So, I am passionate about raising awareness about tax credits and free tax prep for others who might also benefit. 

Tax Credits and Free Tax Prep as Financial Empowerment

When I first started working, I didn’t file a tax return. I wasn’t making enough money for it to be required, and I didn’t know there was a benefit. Then someone at JBAY—a United Ways of California tax partner—told me that I could file for free through resources like VITA and MyFreeTaxes.org and claim tax credits I was eligible for, likely resulting in a refund. That extra money back when I have been working, going to school, and trying to provide for my daughter has made a huge difference.

I qualified for the CalEITC, Young Child Tax Credit, and the education credit. The thousands of dollars I’ve received in refunds each year have allowed me to pay off debt and buy supplies I need for my daughter.

Tax credits changed my life and allowed me to make big financial moves that helped secure my family.

Free tax prep through VITA has also allowed me to maximize my refund; not having to pay $200-$400 for someone to complete my taxes allows me to cover other bills. 

In 2023, I became a VITA volunteer to learn more about how to complete taxes—not just for my benefit, but also to help my peers. I wanted to be able to share the knowledge with other students from my campus. Because of my advocacy on campus and my VITA volunteer training, I became a kind of unofficial tax person on my college campus. I helped some fellow students start self-filing their taxes and referred folks who had more complex tax situations to VITA sites for free support. I’ve also led tax workshops and assisted with self-filing events through JBAY. 

Tax credits changed my life and allowed me to make big financial moves that helped secure my family.

Many of us learn through our experiences not to trust the system. Community voices help those who don’t know who to turn to or trust. I’m honored to have been that voice for many.

After three years of using VITA, I transitioned to filing on my own this past tax year, using the free supportive resources at MyFreeTaxes.org, and I was able to receive my refund with zero fuss.

Advocating for Change

Over the past few years, I’ve also learned the value of government advocacy. I am an advocate for reproductive health and education, for sexual assault survivors, for low-income households, for parents, for higher education, for tax credits and benefits access, for foster youth, and for youth who are experiencing homelessness.

I try to focus on policies that would potentially impact my daughter in the future. 

I advocate because I am not afraid to speak my truth. I speak for those who can’t or who have not found their voices yet. I also want California to be a state my daughter can be proud to live in when she is an adult making it in the world on her own.

I advocate because, for me, it is the answer to the question I’ve been asking myself forever: Why have I had to endure so much in such a short time? I believe the answer is so that I can fight for those who share similar experiences. 

Speaking to an elected official makes me feel like I have power and influence, that my experience and voice matter to help better other people’s experiences. 

Cody Van Felden

Moving Forward

I just received my bachelor’s degree from Sacramento State University, and I hope to stay within advocacy work. Advocating for youth—including foster youth—will always be my number one passion.

My hope is to live a life where I no longer have to function in survival mode, where I no longer have to question if I will have to move or if I can afford rent every year. I want my daughter to have everything she needs to thrive and never have to watch her parents stress about money. My dream is my family securing our future so that our daughter and any future kids we have will not need to go through the same struggles we did.

I love watching my daughter grow up and become more of who she is meant to be. She has so much joy inside of her, and she loves to express herself through drawing and dancing. Watching her personality develop and witnessing her reach all of these huge milestones has been the most amazing experience. I can’t wait to continue to watch her grow and thrive.


Want to join Cody in supporting and uplifting Californians? 

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