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Students Prepare Tax Returns for Waco Residents, Save Taxpayers More Than $400,000 Over Three Years

Feb. 18, 2008

By Ashley Killough

This spring, Baylor students are joining forces with high school students from the A.J. Moore Academy to provide a valuable service for low-income families in Waco.

Through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA), students complete tax returns for families who typically lack familiarity with tax laws and cannot afford professional assistance.

VITA was started by the IRS and trains volunteers to provide free income tax preparation for low-income, elderly, disabled and limited English speaking people. Volunteers educate clients on special credits, such as Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit and Credit for the Elderly.

While this is the fourth season for the A.J. Moore Academy to offer the service, this is the first time for Baylor to be involved. Academy students helped train Baylor students on how to use the tax software.

Dr. Brett Wilkinson, assistant professor and Roderick L. Holmes Chair of Accountancy, said it's important for students to use the skills they have developed to serve others. "It's something we try to promote," he said. "Our goal is to have some service learning opportunities, and this is certainly one."

Since the program started in January, over 660 tax returns have been electronically filed, totaling over $1.2 million in refunds.

While many of the Baylor students receive credit for their service, Wilkinson said most students are simply interested in helping the community. "It's no doubt a great service to the Waco community, and students are learning something and enjoying it, too."

Ron Smith, academy of finance chairman at the A.J. Moore Academy, is grateful for Baylor's partnership. "Baylor students have been an invaluable resource to this year's program," he said. "Without their assistance, we would have been unable to meet the total taxpayer demand this year."

Overall, the Waco VITA program has seen enormous success since its 2005 debut, progressing from 329 returns in the first year, to 692 in the second and 1,118 in the third. "I originally estimated that we would do 1,500 returns this year. I now feel that 1,750-2,000 returns are possible," Smith said.

"This program has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my time at Baylor," David Hall, Mansfield junior accounting major, said. "Not only do I get the hands-on experience of completing tax returns for people, but it also gives me the opportunity to serve the Waco community in a way I never anticipated."

Over 50 Baylor students are involved, working three nights a week in three-hour shifts. At the site, students sit down with clients for an interview, asking tax-related questions such as number of dependencies, marriage status, etc. Then they complete the return on the computer and print it for an accuracy review by a third party of students or staff.

Plano junior accounting major Brett Billman appreciates the opportunity to help the Waco community by preparing tax returns free of charge. "A lot of our clients are struggling to make ends meet. Since they already have to work so hard for their money, it would be even harder for them to pay to have their taxes done," he said.

Students are also enjoying the relational aspect of the experience. "One particular memory I have is when I prepared a return for a deaf man," Billman said. "A woman translated for much of the conversation, but she left at the end. Once I finished his return, he had the biggest smile on his face and he shook my hand. He did not need words to show his appreciation."

Trey Whitten, Houston graduate student in taxation, is the president of Beta Alpha Psi, an accounting fraternity, and said VITA provides a great outlet for members to do service while gaining experience.

"It also allows our membership to exhibit the professionalism that will be expected of them in their career. When you do someone's taxes, you see a very private part of their life," Whitten said. "Professionalism is essential to making the client feel comfortable and confident in my ability. This is true at VITA and Ernst & Young. We are all learning and exercising a valuable skill."

Smith said the experience has an altering effect on students. "One can notice them maturing before your eyes. The students who finish on April 15 will be totally different than those same students who began January 22."

The economic benefits to the community are also valuable. According to Smith, the IRS estimates that each return done at A. J. Moore Academy saves the taxpayer an average of $150 in preparation and filing fees. "Over the three plus years we have provided the service, this translates to some $420,000 in savings to taxpayers."

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