VITA begins new year after record-breaking season

Thirty-eight students will begin the annual Meadville Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program on Feb. 1, 2016, which is aimed to assist residents with a household income below $50,000 do their taxes.

Stephanie Martin, associate professor of economics and director of VITA, said the program has significantly grown in popularity in the seven years she has been in charge. While volunteers used to help around 100 people, they completed around 900 local, state and federal taxes in 2015, breaking all of their previous records.

“We get a really wide range of people,” Martin said.

The VITA program is run by volunteers for 11 ½ half hours a week, and is a free tax service, which Martin said sets it apart from other programs.

“The other tax services in town are going to charge them at least $79,” she said.

Having a volunteer-based program is to the advantage of the volunteers as well, as the program qualifies for the IRS’s insurance as a result, Martin said. If the workers were paid, the IRS would not provide insurance for them.

Martin said the program has gained popularity largely through word of mouth, and is a beneficial asset for the community because around 75 percent of people in Western Crawford County qualify for the program.

Volunteers come from all majors to participate in the national program and use a system called TaxWise that was specifically created for VITA.

Forrest Stuckey, ’16, who participated in VITA in 2015, said that he is glad he took part in the program.

“It was a really awesome experience in that I was doing something great for my résumé…and also I was helping out the Meadville community,” Stuckey said.

Students who participate complete a training program over winter break that includes tax scenarios before returning and completing two more preparation sessions. They then meet with residents in the Meadville Public Library and help determine what rebates they qualify for, such as the Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program aimed to benefit the disabled and elderly.

“It’s a very fast turnaround…almost a trial by fire situation,” Stuckey said. “But there are always support systems in VITA, always someone you can ask for help.”

Ashley Mulryan, ’17, was also a VITA volunteer in 2015, and said the program is helpful for anyone, but particularly for low-income communities.

“Doing taxes is a stress to the average middle class family that can afford a tax program,” she said. “Let alone the members of our community that can’t afford tax software or feel uncomfortable with legal tax documents.”

According to Martin, the program is more difficult for her to handle as it gains popularity.

“The program isn’t really sustainable to teach and [direct],” she said.

She said those working with VITA are trying to institutionalize it in Meadville and raise money to pay a sitemanager to direct the program full time. Currently, Martin appoints site coordinators to manage the program when she cannot be there. These coordinators are generally a mix of students who have participated in the program before and those who are new to the program.

Although students can get four social science credits for completing the program, the credits do not count toward the economics major and students cannot get credit for doing the program more than once. For 2016, seven of the 48 students who volunteered in 2015 are returning.

Although Mulryan is not one of these students, she appreciates the experience she has gotten from the program.

“Being a VITA really allowed me to give back while using my skill set. It’s an awesome opportunity to get off of campus and give back while getting credit,” she said.