Students Help Area Residents with Sometimes ‘Taxing’ Task
Program provides free tax assistance to Meadville community
Most people probably wouldn’t use the words “fun” and “taxes” in the same sentence.
Stephanie Martin does. In fact, Martin, associate professor of economics, enjoys taxes so much that this is her sixth year overseeing a program that gives hundreds of qualifying Meadville residents the chance to have their taxes filed by trained Allegheny College students – for free.
The national program, called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), provides free tax preparation services for Meadville residents who earned $50,000 or less in 2014. The Meadville VITA program is a partnership between Allegheny, the United Way of Western Crawford County, the Meadville Public Library and the Internal Revenue Service and is supported by the Crawford Heritage Foundation. A similar program had been in place under the direction of Janine Sickafuse, associate professor of economics, for approximately 20 years prior to the current program.
Last year, VITA helped 780 local taxpayers. This year, volunteers assisted more than 100 residents in the first week alone. Martin says the goal is to prepare 1,000 returns this season.
“What I really like about this program is that there are so many benefits to both the students and the residents,” Martin says. “For the students, they learn a valuable life skill, and they see Meadville in a whole new light. For residents, we help them get the credits they are eligible for, we save them money because they don’t have to pay for this service and we help them learn about their taxes.”
This year, more than 50 Allegheny students serve as VITA volunteers. When they commit to the program, they are required to attend a 30-hour training regimen that the IRS provides over winter break, then eight more hours of training with Martin on the software they will use. They also must pass a certification exam.
Once they complete these requirements, students spend four to six hours each week on site. During their shift, they rotate between greeters and tax preparers. They also are qualified to review each other’s work to make sure it is correct before the taxes are filed.
In return, students receive four academic credits. “The experience is graded like any other internship,” Martin says. “I also ask them to write reflections about the experience as part of their grade.”
This is the second year that senior Olivia Newman has worked with VITA. Olivia, a biology major/economics minor (with a focus on pre-veterinary medicine), says the program has helped her gain a newfound confidence.
“Before VITA, I was clueless about what to do when it came to taxes. Now I’m not, which is really cool,” she says. “I feel that if I can help other people figure it out, too, that’s awesome. That’s what drives me.”
“The Meadville residents are so grateful,” Martin adds. “One year, a woman owed about $1,000. But after we put in her mileage expenses, she ended up owing $20. The woman jumped up and hugged me.”
Zachary Blank, a sophomore who intends to major in economics, also feels he has benefited from serving as a first-year VITA volunteer.
“I’ve learned a lot about tax laws, and I’ve also worked on my people skills,” he says. “When sitting with residents, you have to know what questions to ask and how to delve a little deeper during the interview process to get the information you need.”
The VITA site is located at the Meadville Public Library (848 N. Main St.) and is open through March 12, and then March 23 to April 11. The site is open for appointments or walk-ins on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 12:30 to 5 p.m.; Tuesdays and Thursdays, 4 to 7 p.m.; and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. For more information or to make an appointment, contact Meadville VITA at firstname.lastname@example.org.