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Free Tax Preparation Program Provides Refunds and Learning Opportunities

Cambria Wheeler, March 24, 2014
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Beginning in mid-February, students in Pacific Union College’s Individual Taxation class participated in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at the Up Valley Family Center in St Helena, Calif. The students prepared tax returns for free for people that earned less than $58,000 per year, applying what they had learned in the classroom as part of a service-learning project that allowed them to grow their skills while providing a valuable service to members of the community.

As of March 19, the twelve PUC students and 4 other community volunteers had prepared and submitted 144 tax returns for Napa Valley residents who visited the St. Helena site of the Up Valley Family Centers, formerly St. Helena Family Center. In early February, the students received IRS certification, and soon after began seeing clients under the supervision of Norma Ferriz, site and operations manager for Up Valley Family Centers.

Ferriz estimates that nearly 90% of the people who take advantage of the program receive a refund. “This is all money that is reinvested in the community so that is great,” she said. In 2013, a group of PUC and community volunteers prepared 165 tax returns, bringing back more than $313,900 in total refunds to families and individuals in the community. “In 2014, thanks to the participation of volunteers from St. Helena and students from PUC the number of tax returns and total refunds will be surpassed,” said Ferriz.

“There are many people who don’t know that by filing they are eligible for certain credits, like the Earned Income tax credit. The program is to educate people about these credits and to facilitate them submitting their taxes,” explained Ferriz. “Doing taxes is part of being a good citizen. We at the Family Center we feel that good citizens do things like these that support the entire community.”

Professor Rodney Hardcastle incorporated the service-learning opportunity into the class so students could apply what they learned in the classroom in the real world. The goal was to “to advance the students’ knowledge of the tax area and at the same time provide something to the community,” Hardcastle shared.

Ferriz agrees that the tax preparation program provides a tangible benefit to the community, while providing students with a chance to learn more than just tax preparation. “It is a great opportunity for students to be exposed to how to do a tax return and also to be exposed to the realities of the different populations who live here,” commented Ferriz. “People have the idea that there are only wealthy people here, but it’s good exposure that there are people with very different incomes that live and work in the Napa Valley.”

Steven Felty, one of the PUC student volunteers, experienced the diversity Ferriz describes. “Many of the people we did returns for had multiple jobs and children and were barely making ends meet,” Felty said. “This program really helps many people get money that they need back.”

Hardcastle is encouraged that the service-learning opportunity has benefitted both his students and the community. “It works out great in this instance because not only are they getting the learning, but they’re giving back to the community at the same time,” he commented.

Elise Williams, a business major enrolled in the course, agreed. “I think that it helped me understand and helped the community, so it was a real win-win situation!” she exclaimed.

The free tax preparation program continues at the St. Helena site of the Up Valley Family Centers through April 15. Those who qualify for the program can call (707) 963-1919 to make an appointment.