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Columnist
University students proud to be part of tax assistance program
By William Carroll | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 5/2/2008 12:25 AM

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For many people, there is no more anxiety-ridden time of year than tax season.

This is particularly true for seniors and low-income families who have to stretch money all year to pay for necessary items.

Eight years ago, I was approached by the DuPage County Chapter of the Notre Dame Alumni Association to partner with them in offering the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Through VITA, college students work with their professors to provide tax preparation assistance to those who cannot afford professional help.

When the university decided to pursue this program, students enrolled in tax-related and other business courses were asked if they would be interested in volunteering for this community service. Their enthusiasm was overwhelming.

For seven years, Benedictine University students have helped hundreds of people in DuPage County fill out their federal and state tax forms -- all at no cost to the individuals or families. These student tax preparers are ordinary students.

The program has been so successful that in the past five years Benedictine students have helped low-income families (less than $40,000 earned) receive more than $250,000 in tax refunds.

This year, 14 students assisted 144 taxpayers (39 more than last year) who were scheduled to receive roughly $165,000 in federal and state refunds.

The Internal Revenue Service supports VITA in an effort to help low-income taxpayers receive benefits that are available to them through the Tax Code.

One example is the Earned Income Credit, which is meant to aid low-income families. In order to receive these benefits, a tax return must be filed. Many people are unaware that these benefits are available, and thus do not correctly complete their tax returns.

Also, low-income seniors who are not required to file a tax return were required to file this year in order to receive their economic stimulus check from the federal government.

Students train for about 25 hours before they can participate in the program. They practice with TurboTax, tax preparation software, to understand the various IRS forms.

VITA is offered at the Nichols Library in downtown Naperville on four Saturday mornings prior to the tax deadline. This year the program was extended to five Saturday mornings.

Students participating in the program begin preparing at the end of January by attending an "awareness night." There is a presentation and discussion of the VITA program and students receive the training materials that help prepare them for an IRS examination they must pass to participate in the program.

Initially, Benedictine students met with individuals at St. Dominic's Church in Bolingbrook, but the setting was not conducive to privacy.

With the help of members of the University of Notre Dame Club of DuPage County, the program was moved to Nichols Library in downtown Naperville. The basement is quite large, and tables are spaced with a modicum of privacy.

"This program gave me insight into the real world and into making things better for people," said former Benedictine University student Jason Racine, who participated in the VITA program for three years before graduating.

"When I started, I was nervous that people would be embarrassed. I could tell they were uncomfortable. But I gained the ability to make people feel calm, and it really has an effect on you when people start crying after you tell them they will receive a refund."

The Notre Dame Club is dedicated to this program. They provide and set up computers and software, interview clients as they arrive to verify their earnings, check that they have appropriate identification and ensure that they have brought the proper tax forms.

They provide tax advice to clients and students, and package the prepared returns.

Undergraduate business instructor and department chairman Don Henschel and business professor Chuck Gahala, with assistance from adjunct faculty member Linda Kanter, manage Benedictine's participation in the VITA program. They and other faculty volunteers worked more than 400 hours on the VITA program this year.

The faculty volunteers also attended the Saturday client meetings to assist the student volunteers.

We often read and hear of students doing good work in far-off countries and states. The VITA program is a story of students doing wonderful work for people in their own community.

One of the characteristics of a Benedictine student is realizing his/her potential in and out of the classroom. The students who participate in the VITA program are special students with special gifts, giving back to their community in a special way.