For some 150 million Americans, spring means dreaded Tax Time, and the annual ritual of gathering documents, working the calculator, and, for some of us, finding ways to avoid doing our taxes until the last minute.
However, the young people who participate in the VITA Club at Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (GSMST) actually look forward to tax season. Between mid-February and Tax Day (April 18 this year), club members will work with dozens of taxpayers in the community, helping them to prepare and file their federal income taxes.
The club is part of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), a program started by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and supported by United Way here in Gwinnett. VITA offers free tax help to people with low to moderate incomes ($54,000 or less), as well as those with disabilities and taxpayers with limited English, who need assistance in preparing their tax returns. IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals.
During the 2014-15 school year, VITA was first introduced to GSMST students by Taryn Brown as her senior capstone project. In Fall 2015, Devneet Singh formalized the school’s involvement by founding VITA Club, one of the few youth VITA groups in the country. She and Theodora Abah, both juniors at the time, had earned tax certification the year before and found the experience of helping community members file their taxes to be rewarding.
“As one volunteer, I could file at least a dozen returns, but if I began a club and could get 20 certified volunteers, we would be able to help so many more people,” says Devneet who serves as the club’s chief executive director. In fact, during the club’s inaugural tax season in 2016, a group of 20 student volunteers helped prepare 60 tax returns for clients through their work, in partnership with Georgia Gwinnett College, at the Tax Clinic of Dacula hosted by Hebron Baptist Church.
Now with 40 certified volunteers, the club aims to help even more qualifying taxpayers complete their returns and, in most cases, file for refunds. For the 2017 tax season, members volunteer for at least three Saturday morning sessions, 9 a.m. to noon, between Feb. 11 and April 15. The filing process typically takes 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the client flow. This year, the clinic also is offering “Virtual VITA,” in which clients go through a 30-minute process at the site, drop off their documents, and pick up the completed return the next Saturday.
Devneet says the opportunity to put her skills to work, both at school and in the community, has changed her high school experience. During the school year, most of her work centers on recruiting and certifying club members. She and other club officers teach classes on tax-related issues, including credits, exemptions, filing rules, electronic filing, and tax ethics in preparation for their certification as VITA volunteers. The fall training sessions are supplemented by group and guided study and practice opportunities.
Volunteers must score 80% or higher on the VITA Certification Test administered in January to earn basic certification. Advanced certification allows students to handle more complicated returns, including those with itemized deductions or mortgage interest. While most students serve as tax return preparers, club members also may serve as an interpreter, greeter, or an asset development specialist who connects clients with community assistance programs such as food banks and shelters.
While students in the club earn community service hours for their work and receive real-life, resume-enhancing experience, the biggest benefit may come from their VITA clients.
"I love VITA because it lets me combine computers, finance, helping others, and teaching into one program,” says Ryan Lynch, the club’s chief learning officer. “I love the technicalities of the taxes and how to navigate the software, but, above all, I enjoy serving the VITA clients and how happy they get when I help them.”
Theodora, the club’s chief strategic officer, agrees. “I love being a VITA volunteer because I know that I am assisting other people, and that makes all the hard work worth it.”
Remaining sessions at the Tax Clinic of Dacula are scheduled for March 18 and 25 and April 1, 8, and 15. Clients who qualify for the service should bring all needed paperwork with them and be prepared to wait for a tax preparer. The tax-prep service is provided on a walk-in basis.
Dr. Elfi Funk, the VITA Club’s sponsor and a tax preparer herself, says the group’s founders will be missed when they graduate in May, but they’re leaving the club in good hands. “Rising juniors and seniors will be taking over the baton from Devneet and Theodora, and they are well prepared to assist their peers in gaining a better understanding of our tax system and the income tax filing process,” she says. Dr. Funk notes that many of the club’s members, herself included, find the tax preparation process to be a gratifying experience. “The interaction with our clients allows us to take our understanding of community service to a new, even higher level.”
As for Devneet— recognized as one of Georgia’s 20 Under 20 Leaders by 21st Century Leaders— she’s looking forward to a life in medicine rather than a career in accounting or tax law, but she sees VITA in her future. “Without a doubt, I will begin VITA chapters in college and medical school if they don’t already exist,” she says.