A student-initiated program that has returned more than $1.5 million in state and federal tax refunds to Lancaster County's low-income residents is gearing up for its fifth year, and Franklin & Marshall College organizers said the 2014 tax-preparation season is shaping up to be another success.
Popular among students and taxpayers, F&M's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program operates through the College's Ware Institute for Civic Engagement in conjunction with the United Way of Lancaster County.
According to the Ware Institute and United Way officials, the number of returns F&M has prepared has grown in the last three years from 321 to 416. F&M's VITA site is one of 20 in the county and one of the three largest in terms of total clients served annually.
F&M VITA's previous site coordinator, Elana Machlis, a junior mathematics major, anticipates an interesting mix of student volunteers again for this coming tax cycle. Last year, 60 students volunteered from a range of majors across the College. "We have art majors doing it, humanities, science majors, everybody," she said. "The people who do it are very passionate about it."
Through the program, student volunteers annually set up tables and computers in the Booth Ferris room of Steinman College Center on F&M's campus, where low-income residents who make appointments through the nonprofit United Way will bring their state and federal tax withholding statements. Students use residents' withholding statements to prepare their income tax returns, and the students then file the returns electronically with the state and federal revenue departments on behalf of residents.
This is the third year Machlis has volunteered for the program, which she said was one of the reasons she chose F&M.
The upcoming VITA season starts in the final week of January 2014 and continues through April 15. The program is closed during spring break, March 8–16.
In four years, more than 200 students have taken part in the program, said Lisa Wolfe, the Ware Institute's associate director.
"This is a great experience for our students because it's right here on campus," she said. "They get to engage with the community and not leave campus."
Recruitment of student volunteers began in September. The application period ran through October 6. All volunteers will be trained in preparing tax returns. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service certifies every student who successfully completes the tax-return training.
Interested volunteers should visit the F&M Vita Training Site. Volunteers must attend two training sessions in November and complete on-line training during winter break.
"What's really neat about the VITA program is that it was the dream of one student," said Professor of Government Susan Dicklitch, associate dean of the College and the Ware Institute's director.
Mona Lotfipour '12, who this year started studying to become a doctor at Penn State College of Medicine, approached Dicklitch in 2010 with the idea for VITA. Once organized, 12 students signed up to volunteer.
Integrating Volunteerism Into the Classroom
After the first year, the student volunteers asked for a VITA-related College course so they could better understand the residents they were serving -- the low-income and increasingly immigrant population of Lancaster.
The Ware Institute responded, and for two years offered an interdisciplinary course on the fundamental reasons poverty existed in Lancaster. "Social In/Justice and the Vulnerable in Lancaster County" featured weekly guest speakers who talked about social justice from economic, philosophical, sociological and business perspectives.
A similar course, “VITA: The Socioeconomic Status of Working Americans in Lancaster and Beyond," will be taught in the spring semester by Economics Professor Sean Flaherty, Weiss College House Don. It will examine some existing government programs and public policy proposals designed to enhance the circumstances of and opportunities available to American workers, including the federal Earned Income Tax Credit that allows qualifying residents to reduce the amount of taxes they owe, a key element of the VITA program. All students must be trained to prepare tax returns as part of the community-based learning component of this course.
The United Way screens clients and books their appointments at the F&M tax preparation location. Student volunteers greet the clients when they arrive at the student center, and student translators are available as needed.
United Way also will provide its own, as yet un-named, site coordinator, trained in tax law and tax preparation, to oversee operations and partner with Gordon Heller, who will review all returns before they are sent to the IRS.
Steve O'Neill, United Way's VITA program coordinator, said his organization also plans to have community volunteers experienced in tax preparation working with F&M students.
"The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds," O'Neill said. "A lot of retirees, a lot of working professionals and some other college students."
The number of clients at F&M's VITA site has increased each year since the VITA site opened, O'Neill said.
"We often see pretty large refunds coming back to our clients," he said. "Even more impactful than that is the money being saved. Each client that comes through our door is saving about $200 (in tax-preparation fees)."
Last year, F&M student tax preparers saved their taxpaying clients $83,000 in tax-prep fees and helped them realize $589,000 in refunds.
"We get people from all different financial backgrounds," Machlis said. Not everyone qualifies for a refund, though. "There have been tears and there has been happiness."