Providing tax help to community is a matter of the heart for students

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Providing free tax help to local community is a matter of the heart for CoB students

March 11, 2016, Katja Sonkeng

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Accounting students helping members of the
community with their income tax returns in
the computer labs located in the lower level
of Rehn Hall.

Providing tax preparation assistance to the local community is a long-standing and rich tradition in the School of Accountancy of SIU’s College of Business.

It’s also a matter of the heart for many student volunteers who spend their Saturday mornings pondering over W-2s, 1099s, 1040s and other tax forms to help low- to moderate-income ($53,000 and below) taxpayers receive the best possible income returns.

But here’s the best part: There’s no charge for the hassle-free service.

“Being born and raised in Carbondale, it’s heartwarming and brings me a lot of joy to give back my knowledge on taxes to help out members of the local community and surrounding areas who may not know what exactly they are doing,” Don Allen Bryant said.

Bryant is one of three coordinators of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at the SIU College of Business. Since the beginning of February, the senior accounting major, along with fellow coordinators Keenan Walsh and Juan Ramirez, has been busy supervising the weekly tax preparation sessions on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. That includes reviewing and submitting electronically the prepared tax returns by the student volunteers, in addition to answering tricky questions.

“It’s a great experience,” Ramirez said. “The local people are very happy about it. We get a lot of thanks and appreciation.”

Ramirez, a junior accounting major, was appointed to his role by program sponsor Beta Alpha Psi, an honorary accounting student organization within SIU’s College of Business. All three student officers received advanced training before assuming their roles as VITA coordinators, in addition to the mandatory ethics and basic tax exams that are required for every IRS-certified volunteer tax preparer.

The tax preparation service, which has been around for more than 25 years, averages about 20 electronically submitted tax returns every Saturday morning. The service has earned a great reputation over that time span, with most of its beneficiaries being college students and senior citizens.

“It’s my first time getting my taxes done here,” said one client from Murphysboro. “My supervisor recommended this service to me.”

About 45 minutes after that client walked in, he walked out of the computer lab smiling. Equally satisfied was another client who, when she found out about her refund, called it a much-needed financial break.

“It’s going well this tax season,” Walsh said. “We are doing much better than last year. In fact, we now have this problem that we don’t have enough people coming in to get their taxes done.”

Ramirez said the ultimate goal for the remainder of the tax season is to draw more people to the program, adding: “We are aiming at 30 to 40 people per session.”

The first-year program coordinator encourages everyone to come out and take advantage of the volunteers’ tax knowledge.

“Anyone is welcome,” he said. “The more, the better.”

He added that the waiting time is, at most, 15 to 30 minutes.

While calling the free tax service “a great help for students and the local community,” Ramirez’s motivation is primarily driven by the “personal goal to get a hands-on experience on preparing tax returns, and to see the different situations you can come across within the realm so that you are not completely lost when you go out into the real world.”

In doubtful situations, there is always Marcus Odom to lend his expertise. The professor of accountancy and Deloitte & Touche Faculty Fellow attends the Saturday morning sessions, and he’s just a phone call or email away when he’s not there.

“I just come in here to give moral support,” Odom said. “The three coordinators basically run this service. They make sure everything is how it is supposed to be.”

Initiated by the Internal Revenue Service, VITA is a free service available to any U.S. citizen, regardless of marital status or profession, who has an annual income totaling no more than $53,000.

For more information, email Keenan Walsh at kqwalsh@siu.edu or visit during the Saturday sessions from 8 a.m. to noon (except during spring break) through April 9 in the computer labs located in the lower level of Rehn Hall.