Meeting deadlines for papers and assignments keeps most Franklin & Marshall students busy on a typical evening around campus. But for a group of 17 students, helping other people meet one of the year's most notorious deadlines—April 15—is of prime importance.
F&M students are providing an assist to local citizens this semester through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA), an IRS-backed initiative. Starting the week of Jan. 25 and running until April 15, student volunteers are working with low- to moderate-income wage earners who cannot prepare their own tax returns. Students are available Sunday through Tuesday in the Steinman College Center, working free of charge. This marks the first year VITA has a site on the F&M campus.
Mona Lotfipour '12 and Jared Gorin '13 organized the program on campus, which has already served dozens of local taxpayers. Lotfipour learned about the program last year, during an AmeriCorps internship at United Way of Lancaster County, and soon began planning a VITA site for F&M with the help of Susan Dicklitch, associate dean of the College and director of the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement.
"This is unique for how small a school we are," Lotfipour says. "We did a lot of research looking at other schools. Many places have only accounting majors and professors helping, but we have volunteers from all disciplines."
The students received support from the Ware Institute, the Office of the President, the Office of the Dean of the College, and Information Technology Services. The most difficult hurdle, Lotfipour says, was gaining approval from the IRS.
Local taxpayers make appointments for VITA through United Way LINC, a community resource service that provides free information and referrals. Four F&M volunteers work per shift, while two tax experts—one from H&R Block and the other a professor at Harrisburg Area Community College—provide professional assistance. The volunteers interview people seeking help to ensure they complete the necessary forms.
Gorin, who plans to major in chemistry, never anticipated helping people with tax returns. "It's good to branch out and try new things," he says. "I've never wanted to do taxes, ever. When I told my parents, they said, 'What? Why would you do that?'"
It did not take long before Gorin realized the significant impact he could have on people in the local community. His first client was a 19-year-old mother of a 9-month-old. After some number crunching, Gorin helped the woman get more than $5,000 back in her returns.
"You never think people are making $15,000 per year," Lotfipour says. "It's such a different world than we're used to seeing, and a lot of times we don't recognize it. This is how people are living."
Through all the paperwork and official IRS business, personal stories remain with the student volunteers.
"People open up when you're doing their taxes," Lotfipour says. "A nursing student came in and said she was having a horrible day. She kept thanking us…we're just interested in helping others, any way we can."