Filing taxes is not for the faint of heart. It’s a time-consuming, confusing, required-by-law activity that is not only stressful, but also can be quite expensive if the services of an accountant are required. This adds even more stress to the already worrying task. So, when money is tight and it comes to filing taxes, enlisting the help of a trusted tax prep volunteer – think “free” help – is a welcome option.
Enter FGCU’s partnership with the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades, Okeechobee and Charlotte counties. As participants in the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, interested students in FGCU’s Accounting Society and Beta Alpha Psi – Jacqueline Conrecode is faculty advisor – undertake an average of 20 hours tax prep training conducted by Mary Meador, volunteer engagement manager, United Way. Once training is complete and students have passed the IRS’s certification exam, they are qualified to offer their services to VITA clients.
Not surprisingly, due to COVID restrictions, the 2020 tax prep program had to shift gears from wholly in-person client consultations to predominantly drive-through sites, reminiscent of drive-by testing facilities. A small number of sites offer in-person client/volunteer meetings following all CDC guidelines.
According to VITA guidelines, persons in low-income households or who have a disability or limited English language skills are entitled to receive services. Once eligibility is established, clients are directed to proceed to one of 19 designated drive-by sites to drop off their paperwork, which is then handed off to an FGCU student or community volunteer.
Each tax return prepared by a volunteer undergoes a quality review prior to notifying the client to return to the site, review the completed tax return, and sign. Only then is the tax return filed with the IRS.
Dr. Tanya Benford, associate professor and chair of the Accounting Department, facilitates the process for FGCU, helping to recruit students and, prior to COVID, coordinating the use of FGCU computer labs used by United Way for tax prep training. Like most things these days, training has morphed from in-person classes to virtual or at-home study. Nevertheless, in all cases, students must pass the IRS’s tax prep certification exam prior to working with clients.
Benford sees the program as a win-win. Clients get expert tax advice for free, and, she said, students benefit enormously: “Many are interested in working with a CPA firm after graduation. We talk about how this work enhances their resumes and positions them well when it comes to future job opportunities.”
Joseph B. Uecker, (’22, Accounting and Finance) couldn’t agree more. Uecker, who aspires to a career in public accounting or finance, volunteers Mondays and Saturdays at the United Way Main drive-by site in Fort Myers. “I’m learning a lot,” he said. “Practice outside the classroom is invaluable.”
Resume building aside, Benford said that student volunteers report “feeling a great sense of accomplishment,” not only from successfully completing the task at hand, but also from helping others.”
Uecker echoed Benford when he said, “For me, the best thing about the program is helping people who need it most.” To illustrate, Uecker tells of one client who was a single mom, raising three children and collecting unemployment. “In the end, she was entitled to a refund more than $1,000 than she expected,” he said. Both Uecker and his client were pleased.
Patrice Cunningham, director of the United Way Volunteer Center, has been involved with the VITA program since 2008. She began working with FGCU and Benford around 2014, adding students to the VITA community volunteer staff. “We are truly grateful for United Way’s partnership with FGCU,” she said. Not only does Cunningham derive satisfaction from helping students find quality community service opportunities that will help them in the future, but she is also more than pleased that the student and community volunteers serve an average of 5,500 clients per tax season — people who, otherwise, might not have access to professional tax advice.
“We hear all the time how grateful our clients are to have an environment with a program they can trust,” said Cunningham. “So many of us are fearful of the IRS. But here is a program that’s safe and reliable. Our clients appreciate everything we do.” Cunningham reports numerous repeat clients year after year.
Judith Fenelon (’21, Accounting) is an intake volunteer. She greets drivers, checks IDs and social security cards, reviews their paperwork to ensure all IRS required forms are filled out, all boxes checked, and all proof of employment included. It is her job to make sure that tax prep volunteers have all the material needed to do the job.
“We’re always getting positive feedback from people,” she said. “They’re especially appreciative that we take time out of our weekends to help on a Saturday.”
While 2020 numbers are not yet tallied, figures for the 2019 tax year are impressive. Eleven FGCU students prepared approximately 330 tax returns and generated approximately $95,000 in tax prep savings and $44,000 in refunds.
Students interested in helping their community and building their resumes by becoming a VITA volunteer, or those interested in becoming a VITA client, can call 239-433-3900 for more information.