SMU students lead volunteer tax program
Brian Messing, Section Editor
It’s tax season! As everyone in the community gathers their documents and prepares their returns, Saint Martin’s students are no exception to the routine. But this year, tax season was different at Saint Martin’s. A group of Saint Martin’s students, led by accounting chair and professor Diane Bingaman, took it upon themselves to provide a public service to students and the general community. They did this by opening a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) center on campus.
The VITA program allows anyone, in this case students, to be certified to prepare tax returns for individuals having 60,000 dollars in taxable income and below. The program here at Saint Martin’s is free and open for all to use, with around 15 student tax preparers participating in the VITA center. The center is open to students and members of the community making less than 60,000 dollars a year all tax season, every Saturday, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and is always completely free.
The VITA center is set up to function like a machine with every part of the process well thought out. When people walk in, they are greeted by friendly student volunteers and given the necessary paperwork to begin filling out. The VITA center is set up in Harned Hall and for good reason. Derwin Peacock, a senior and accounting major, explained that “Harned Hall and specifically Harned room 109 is the ideal spot” for the VITA center. Peacock further explained that Harned Hall is big enough to allow people to spread out and fill out forms in peace and sit near a fireplace. Harned Hall also has the added benefit of a computer lab, a necessity in the world of preparing tax returns in the twenty-first century.
The VITA center is truly a community effort to help people prepare their tax returns easily, because as Peacock pointed out “taxes are stressful.” In addition to the efforts of the student tax preparers and Bingaman, many local businesses also pitched in to make the VITA center successful. The students reached out to Starbucks and were able to secure free coffee for anyone who comes by. Heavenly Donuts donated two dozen donuts to the project and Wal-Mart gave 25 dollars, which was spent on tea and other food items. Additionally, the students received donations from Costco, Safeway and other donut shops.
Every decision was made to make everything as convenient as possible for people to do their taxes. The preparers are able to work with an impressive five languages, spanning English, Korean, Spanish, Chinese and French. Additionally, appointments are available for people who showed up once and couldn’t finish their return because of how busy the preparers were. The goal is to make sure that no one has to wait in line twice. The program was also widely advertised from the surrounding areas of Lacey and Olympia, all the way to Yelm and Tacoma. The program also boasts automatic deposits of tax refunds into the bank accounts of those who have their taxes done.
Students who participate in the program as tax preparers come from all levels of their academic careers. The program features everyone from freshmen to graduate students, all united in their goal of helping people from the local community. The training to become a preparer is all online and free. Students who participated in it last semester also received one academic credit for attending the class on Saturday mornings. Students can also participate in the VITA program for an internship in a variety of fields, that are not all accounting related including customer service. While the program is currently made up of students majoring in business and accounting, this is not a requirement.
So, what’s next for the VITA program at Saint Martin’s? Bingaman and Peacock have big plans for where the VITA program could go long-term. Bingaman noted that she was “thrilled with the response we got from students,” going on to say that “over 20 people were here in December.” She said that in the future she hopes that students will be able to help community members with financial planning assistance, personal finance and more opportunities down the path. Peacock hopes that the program can go “mobile” at some point. Essentially the idea being that the students could travel to places, such as retirement communities, where there are lots of people who need help with their taxes.
Watching the students work hard on their Saturdays to help people, when they often have lots of homework to do as well, is an excellent representation of the Bennedictine values at work at Saint Martin’s. As Peacock put it, his goals were to “give back through education” and “help the community by giving as many people free tax prep as possible.”