Juniors Jake Moon and Tessa Rhinehart spend their free time doing other people’s taxes. The two, along with other members of the Swarthmore Volunteer Income Tax Assistance club, go into neighboring towns to help low-income residents fill out their tax forms and reduce their tax rates. Through this volunteer experience, students get the opportunity to give back to the community and learn a valuable life skill.
An IRS sponsored program, VITA provides free service to families and individuals in Chester, Holmes, Darby, Upper Darby, and Borough. The group recommends programs to their clients according to their needs. For families below a certain income, the group can help clients receive tax credit and even refunds.
“Most of the people who we provide our services to are elderly, and they can’t really do the taxes themselves with something like Turbo Tax,” Moon said. He asserts that there are many advantages to choosing VITA over an online service; families they assist receive individualized help from a real person rather than a computer. “There are some tax services that lie and say they can give you a reduction in tax rates and they just scam you off of money. By having students do it who have no incentive to take their money we can honestly give them the right amount.”
In the spring semester of 2014 alone, VITA saved residents in Delaware County over a million dollars in income tax. According to Rhinehart, the group returns around $3.5 million each year depending on the number of volunteers participating.
Rhinehart is a social coordinator for the group, and says she got involved in the organization at the activities fair during the beginning of her freshman year. “At the time, I had no idea how to prepare taxes, but I learned how to prepare taxes through participating in VITA,” Rhinehart said. All members of the group are trained in tax preparation and are required to complete the IRS certification process before they can begin volunteering.
Moon says one of the most rewarding experiences he has had in the group was helping an elderly woman who initially doubted the group because of their age and experience. “I had an old lady who was a little difficult to deal with because she didn’t entirely trust us; we’re students and we look like students. Through our procedures I gradually gained her trust and she came out really happy with our work. She really thanked us in the end. It was just a little success that I found very gratifying,” Moon said. “You hear a lot of our volunteers talk about stories where there’s a little suspicion in the beginning but then they open up.”
Rhinehart says going through the tax preparation process is both a very personal and rewarding process. “You learn a surprising amount about a person’s life: their children, their spouse, glimpses of what their lives are like at home and at work. Interacting with those whose taxes I prepare is definitely my favorite part of VITA.”
Joining the group provides students with valuable volunteer experience and real life skills. “You can learn more about tax code and more of how federal public services work. It’s also a good resume builder if you really want to be career oriented,” Moon said.
While the group does not provide tax services to other Swarthmore students, all students are welcome to join the group and learn the skills themselves, while also providing a needed service to members of the greater community.
“VITA is definitely a two-way street,” Rhinehart said. “On one hand, Swarthmore VITA makes a big impact on the community of Delaware County. But it also provides an important alternative to tax preparers that require a fee for tax preparation, and its volunteers are specially trained to look for tax opportunities likely to benefit low-income or elderly people. We are conscious of how much we, as volunteers, also learn and grow from VITA.”