Beginning in mid-February, students in Pacific UnionCollege’s Individual Taxation class participated in the Volunteer Income TaxAssistance (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 aservice-learning project that allowed them to grow their skills while providinga valuable service to members of the community.
As of March 19, the twelve PUC students and 4 othercommunity volunteers had prepared and submitted 144 tax returns for Napa Valleyresidents who visited the St. Helena site of the Up Valley Family Centers,formerly St. Helena Family Center. In early February, the students received IRScertification, and soon after began seeing clients under the supervision ofNorma Ferriz, site and operations manager for Up Valley Family Centers.
Ferriz estimates that nearly 90% of the people who takeadvantage of the program receive a refund. “This is all money that isreinvested in the community so that is great,” she said. In 2013, a group ofPUC and community volunteers prepared 165 tax returns, bringing back more than$313,900 in total refunds to families and individuals in the community. “In2014, thanks to the participation of volunteers from St. Helena and studentsfrom PUC the number of tax returns and total refunds will be surpassed,” saidFerriz.
“There are many people who don’t know that by filing theyare eligible for certain credits, like the Earned Income tax credit. Theprogram is to educate people about these credits and to facilitate them submittingtheir 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 thatsupport the entire community.”
Professor Rodney Hardcastle incorporated theservice-learning opportunity into the class so students could apply what theylearned in the classroom in the real world. The goal was to “to advance thestudents’ knowledge of the tax area and at the same time provide something tothe community,” Hardcastle shared.
Ferriz agrees that the tax preparation program provides atangible benefit to the community, while providing students with a chance tolearn more than just tax preparation. “It is a great opportunity for studentsto be exposed to how to do a tax return and also to be exposed to the realitiesof the different populations who live here,” commented Ferriz. “People have theidea that there are only wealthy people here, but it’s good exposure that thereare 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 returnsfor had multiple jobs and children and were barely making ends meet,” Feltysaid. “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 thecommunity. “It works out great in this instance because not only are theygetting the learning, but they’re giving back to the community at the sametime,” he commented.
Elise Williams, a business major enrolled in the course,agreed. “I think that it helped me understand and helped the community, so itwas 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 qualifyfor the program can call (707) 963-1919 to make an appointment.