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Putting their skills to good use: Business students help local lower-income families file taxes

February 14th, 2013

As Benjamin Franklin put it, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.”  However, low-income families often need help preparing their taxes in the most cost-effective manner. VITA, a program funded by the IRS, offers free tax help to people who make $51,000 or less and need assistance in preparing their tax returns. This program provides low-income families with IRS-certified volunteers who offer free basic income tax return preparation. Through this program, qualified individuals in the local community can go to libraries, shopping malls and other convenient locations and receive preparation and electronic filing of their taxes.

Ted Steiner, the coordinator of immersions and special programs for the Center for Service and Social Action, said, “Taxes are something everyone has to do and something everyone struggles with; so if there’s a way to help, we should be doing it.”

Enter The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Coalition.  The EITC is a refundable tax credit that increases the income of low-and moderate-income working families through tax reductions and wage supplements. The EITC Coalition provides free tax preparation at different locations to low-income families in the community, reducing taxes and increasing refund. The coalition’s primary focus is to aid employed workers in maintaining their independence from welfare and does this with the help of local volunteers.

The coalition recruited JCU students, alumni and staff volunteers to prepare the taxes of qualified low-income families. To become a volunteer, an individual had to possess a certain level of comfort with taxes and tax law. The University held a six-hour training session on Jan. 26, where a member of the coalition taught volunteers how to use web-based software programs provided by VITA and issued through the IRS.

Not only does this program provide help to the community, but it also provides students with real-life experience preparing taxes. “This program teaches the volunteers about people’s lives, because when you do taxes, you learn a lot about a person. From this experience, volunteers will receive real-life education,” said Steiner. “We also recruit volunteers to help out at the Famicos Foundation, a not-for-profit affordable housing developer and social service provider, on five Saturdays during tax season. These dates include Feb. 16 and 23, March 16 and 23, and April 13. Students, alumni and staff are all invited.”

“It’s a different way to help people out,” said senior Erica Deimel, who is volunteering. “Taxes are confusing to people. It’s a very serious offense not to file your taxes. It’s knowledge that I have to help people. We kind of get to know them in a very different way. I’m looking foward to the experience.”

Senior Rich Mazzolla said volunteering helps him find a happy medium between service and something he enjoys doing. “I know a lot of accounting majors like the extra practice,” he said. “It’s tough for business students, other than physical labor, to give back doing something that we do.”