UNL volunteers process more than 800 tax returns

Student volunteers process tax forms during the VITA program session March 5 in the Nebraska Union.
Student volunteers process tax forms during the VITA program session March 5 in the Nebraska Union.

A little desire to help those in need can go a long way.

Five years ago, this desire fueled a meeting among those who sought new approaches to sparking student-community interaction.

"We had about five non-profit executive directors visiting about what the university could do to improve its relationship with the community and provide valuable service experiences for students," said Linda Moody, assistant director of service-learning and volunteer services at UNL.

Those discussions lead to the creation of a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site at UNL. It offers free tax return preparations for low to moderate-income families, individuals and students.

Volunteers become certified tax preparers and acquire knowledge that helps them prepare tax returns accurately and efficiently.

"There are five certification levels of tax law training: basic, intermediate, advanced, military and international," Moody said. "At our site, the minimum level we like to have volunteers at is intermediate."

Some student volunteers, especially those in accounting and finance fields, often look at taking their certification levels above intermediate after being involved with the program.

Aside from gaining real-world experience with tax laws, volunteers also interact with the community intimately.

"Within 20 minutes, you gain trust and respect because people are sharing confidential information," Moody said. "Something about that process makes the program have a high impact on the volunteers."

This impact can be valuable for those who may not understand the range of socioeconomic diversity in the Lincoln community.

"Participating in the program put a realistic face on Lincoln," said Caleb Pickard, a senior economics major and the VITA program undergraduate assistant. "Just because a community looks like a healthy one on the surface doesn't mean there's not some work that can be done."

Between volunteering on-site and promoting the program from the Student Involvement office, Pickard dedicates 30-35 hours per week to the program.

Two of Pickard's promotion efforts have included registered student organization outreach and a flier campaign.

"I saw a sign promoting the program in my dorm," said Erica Lam, a junior accounting major and student volunteer. "I thought it would be a really good opportunity to learn about tax laws and to be able to do my own taxes in the future."

Lam said she plans on continuing her involvement with the program as long she is enrolled at UNL.

"We ultimately want to have as many people possible participate in VITA, both from a service perspective as well as a community perspective," Moody said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for students to see the community and to work with people who are different from them."

Pickard said being involved has expanded his view on the need for such services in the Lincoln community and he would like to see the program grow in years to come.

In its inaugural year, the UNL campus VITA site completed 128 returns. This tax season, the site had completed more than 800 returns as of March 1.

"We're getting better every year at what we do," he said. "With roughly the same number of preparers, we're able to increase the number of returns, which speaks to our competency and efficiency as a program."

Moody said the program has potential to reach hundreds - possibly thousands - of people who are paying preparers for their tax refunds because they don't know about the VITA site.

"The program is too valuable of an effort to not continue with," she said. "If this were something we'd walk away from, there would be a big hole in the community."

The VITA site is open today, 5 to 8 p.m. in the Nebraska Union's Colonial Room. The site will also be open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., April 11-13 in the Nebraska Union's Union Square.

For more information or to volunteer with the VITA program, contact Moody at lmoody2@unl.edu or (402) 472-8158.

- Mekita Rivas, University Communications

More details at: http://go.unl.edu/dbj