Many Elon University students will spend the Easter Holiday dusting pink Peeps’ powder off their fingers or dunking hardboiled eggs into bright blue dye. But for low-income families in Alamance county, the Easter Holiday comes with an additional source of pressure. April 18 marks the end of tax season, and all returns must be filed, despite a general lack of knowledge and trust of the process.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) is an initiative offered by the Internal Revenue Service and run by certified volunteers to assist people with a yearly income of $54,000 or less with filing their taxes, free of charge. Susan Anderson, professor of accounting, brought the program to Elon during Winter Term of last year, and required her students in her “Accounting 471” class to become VITA-certified so they could serve as volunteers.
During tax season, Elon VITA volunteers — who now extend outside of Anderson’s class — spend each Saturday at the Elon Downtown Center preparing tax returns for low-income families in the area.
The lack of good, stable jobs, combined with the decline of the textile industry and the number of people holding down multiple jobs to make ends meet, makes VITA an invaluable asset to the community. Volunteers keep the program running, and the VITA certification test is open to students of all majors. It can be found online through the IRS.
Students work in two shifts, 9 a.m.- noon and 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. with each section made up of four or five students. Clients, who have the option of making online appointments or walking in, are greeted by a student who distributes an intake survey and questionnaire.
Once the client enters the preparation room, student volunteers work two students to one computer with Tax Slayer Pro software to prepare the return. The client passes on all relevant and pertinent documentation — WPAs and 1099-Rs — and is encouraged to ask questions along the way. Anderson and VITA coordinators hover around to oversee the process, and before the return is filed, it is thoroughly reviewed by experts on hand.
Brian DiBiagio, treasurer of accounting fraternity Beta Alpha Psi, took Anderson’s Winter Term class and has been an active participant of VITA ever since.
“When you have such a low-income range, paying $500 for someone just to file your taxes is huge,” DiBiagio said. “We can minimize their tax expenditure as much as possible, and that’s a great experience.”
Members of Beta Alpha Psi are encouraged to fulfill their service hours via VITA.
“We really want our members getting involved in the community and giving back,” said Nicholas Massey, president of Beta Alpha Psi. “We think that their education here is definitely a privilege and a way they can show their gratitude for it is showing some of their skills and actions in ways that help the community.”
Elon VITA volunteers improve their communication skills, tax knowledge, standards of conduct and knowledge of basic operating procedures through their consultants.
Massey acknowledged the challenge of the student-to-adult dynamic, but believes the experience is critical to post-graduate success.
“I think one of the points of college is to come and grow into a young professional, and I think that as we progress through college we should become more and more accustomed to interacting with adults at a professional level,” Massey said. “VITA has definitely offered that opportunity to us.”
And as the students gain experience, the clients gain trust and understanding.
“When you do a face-to-face client engagement like that there’s sort of an intimacy,” DiBiagio said. “There is a change between when they sit down and give you the information to the end of the return. Everybody has been so thankful.”