Getting taxes prepared can be, well, taxing. It can also be expensive, and a hardship for low-income families. Help can be found through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, offered in communities across the nation.
Each spring, 20-30 students from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point volunteer with VITA through CAP Services in Stevens Point, providing free tax preparation for low-income families. These students, along with other community volunteers, work one-on-one with families to make sure they get every tax credit available to them.
Last year, CAP Services' VITA volunteers served 833 families in its three-county service area, saving them more than $133,000 in preparer's fees and getting them nearly $430,000 in earned income tax credits and $1.3 million in state and federal tax refunds.
Students enjoy both learning and serving their community. "The idea of volunteering to help people in the community was really appealing to me," said Alexander Ralph, an accounting and business administration major from Waunakee. "We assist all kinds of people, from high schoolers working part time to seniors collecting Social Security."
"VITA appealed to me because I wanted to get hands-on experience in accounting, and being involved in my community is very important to me," said Erica Frost, Rudolph, a junior majoring in accounting and business administration.
Bo DeDeker, a lecturer in the School of Business and Economics, volunteered with VITA as a business student when he attended UW-Stevens Point. Now that he teaches tax preparation courses there, he helps CAP Services coordinator Erin Olson recruit student volunteers. She introduces the program, and students sign up in fall. During winter break, they take more than eight hours of training and testing to be certified to prepare income tax returns using the Taxslayer software.
Volunteer hours begin the first week of February and go through April 15, with supervision by a CAP Services coordinator. Volunteers meet clients and prepare taxes twice weekly in Stevens Point.
Student volunteers have a variety of majors, from business to biology, DeDeker said. All take the work with VITA seriously, some even showing up in business attire and volunteering at other VITA locations, such as Lincoln Center. Many enjoy it so much that they return to volunteer after they have graduated from UW-Stevens Point.
Accounting Associate Professor Ruixue Du is also among the volunteers. "UW-Stevens Point has had VITA volunteers going back to the '80s," she said. "Our students love it because it gives them the opportunity to work with a client and help a real person with real issues. Their faces light up when they talk about it. This is an opportunity for them to have a life experience they can't get in the classroom."
Kai Kanda, an accounting major from Boulder, Colo., said the program helped him professionally and personally. "I was a bit nervous before I began volunteering with the VITA program. Tax law is complicated and unforgiving, and I was intimidated by working with real people and real money. After my first session, I experienced the warm culture of our VITA site and continue to feel supported by peers and supervisors."
Students can also apply for one of about 10 internships with VITA, earning one course credit. Most students who volunteer give 40 hours to the program and gain experience that often helps them earn internships or careers with certified public accounting firms after graduating.
Internship credit appealed to Abbey Wiersema, an accounting major from Amherst, who also likes the VITA work on her resume. "People have been really nice. One lady told me she loved me."
"I was surprised at how grateful people are," said Gavin Czerwonka, a junior from Wittenberg majoring in finance and accounting, who also likes serving the community. "I'm finding I enjoy doing the tax preparation itself. It's like finding every piece of a puzzle."
The VITA program helps students better understand parts of the tax code and how they can benefit taxpayers, Ralph said. "Finding out about credits that got people hundreds of dollars back from the state was interesting for me as well as exciting for the clients."
The program introduces tax concepts in a hands-on setting, Frost said. "There is only so much you can learn in the classroom, and VITA provides real-world experience because you are actually preparing tax returns and working with people. It also teaches responsibility and paying attention to detail."
Residents may still sign up. To get tax preparation help through the VITA program, call 211.