During the 2015 tax season, students in PUC’s Individual Taxation class put their knowledge to practical use on a community service project. 22 PUC students went to the Up Valley Family Center in St. Helena to help people earning less than $53,000 prepare their tax returns. Because of this collaboration between the college and the Up Valley Family Centers, these students were able to not only put classroom theory into actual practice, but were also helping the community in a tangible way.
Professor of Business Administration Rodney Hardcastle introduced the service-learning project to his Individual Taxation class last year, and the results warranted the program be revisited this year as well. “PUC has been very fortunate to be able to forge a partnership with the St. Helena and Calistoga Family Centers to provide the community with free tax preparation services,” says Hardcastle. “The Family Centers provide this fantastic service to low-income taxpayers while PUC students taking the Individual Income Tax course are fortunate to be able to gain real life experience with individual income tax preparation.” From 2014 to 2015, the number of student participants nearly doubled.
The students participated in a program called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)—a free tax preparation program designed to assist households earning less than $53,000 a year, with the larger goal of helping Napa County residents become financially stable. Norma Ferriz, the site and operations manager for the Up Valley Family Centers, says their organization is one of the four coalitions providing the service to Napa County, and specifically provides for St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Angwin, and Calistoga. Though the Up Valley Family Centers are not the only locations where VITA is offered, they are the only ones that process taxes for people with independent businesses and sales of stock.
The PUC students helping with the tax preparation service get to apply the skills they learn in class to something concrete, while at the same time providing a great benefit to the community. “The student feedback from their experience has been extremely positive,” states Hardcastle. “They come away from it with a positive feeling about community service and without exception have said that the real life learning experience greatly enhanced their classroom learning.”
Likewise, Ferriz points out that community members utilizing this service can benefit greatly by getting free help with taxes, while other tax preparation services might cost $200-$300. Additionally, these individuals become aware of income boosts such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and refund anticipation loans. Ferriz explains the additional benefits of how fully informed tax refunds help bolster the market and help people reach personal goals. “Tax refunds have a long life in our community,” she says. “People pay debts, purchase new items, pay tuition for college, save for rainy days or to purchase something special for their children’s education, etc.”
Ferriz stated that last year, due to the help of PUC students and community member volunteers, the total number of tax returns and refunds was surpassed. With the program thriving from the support of the college and its students, more people than ever will be able to see results from their expertly prepared tax returns. “The student feedback from their experience has been extremely positive,” states Hardcastle. “They come away from it with a positive feeling about community service and without exception have said that the real life learning experience greatly enhanced their classroom learning.”