Every spring at Frostburg State University, fewer than a dozen volunteers help scores of area residents navigate a real jungle: their tax forms.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program pairs FSU student volunteers, primarily accounting majors, with taxpayers who need help with the maze of tax regulations, both federal and Maryland, all for free.
During the past tax season, the eight students helped fill out more than 300 tax forms. Most taxpayers came to FSU on one of eight Saturdays that the volunteers were available. Others, who couldn't arrange their schedules to fit, dropped off their paperwork, and it was filled out during the week.
The program, in its 12th year, provides Internal Revenue Service-trained and approved volunteers. Volunteers are recruited in the fall, then are given the IRS course before Christmas break. Following the break, they are tested and approved as volunteers.
Most of the clients are low-income people, with or without children, who qualified for the Earned Income Credit but didn't know how to calculate it, said Dr. Joyce Middleton, who co-coordinates the program with Connie Groer, who founded the program in 1989. Others were people, such as students claimed as dependents on their parents' returns, who thought they qualified but didn't.
"There's a lot of need out there. There are a lot of people who can use this service," Middleton said.
The free service is available to anyone who files the 1040 EZ, the 1040A or the basic 1040 form. Middleton interviews clients when they call to make an appointment to get an idea of how complex a process it will be - and to weed out those who aren't eligible, such as those who have businesses. The only state return they generally handle is Maryland, she said.
Others who have been served by the volunteer program included FSU students, both U.S. and international, retired folks and FSU faculty and staff members.
All returns are filled out on pencil by one of the student volunteers, then are checked by either Groer or Middleton, both associate professors in the Department of Accounting. Most sessions take 90 minutes or less.
Many of the clients were return customers who have gotten to know the benefits of the VITA program. While the volunteers aren't allowed to accept any payment for their services, grateful clients often bring candy or other treats to the volunteers. Others express their gratitude through a donation to the FSU Foundation.
The program has been adapting in recent years as it becomes more difficult for people to carve out time on a Saturday. Every year, a few clients drop of their returns for someone to work on during the week. The year, more than a third took advantage of that service. That makes it easier for the student volunteers as well, since they can work on the forms at a time convenient to them, Middleton said.
Those who give of their time say the clients' gratitude and the valuable experience are well worth it.
"I really enjoyed helping," said Mischelle Johnson, a May 2000 graduate from Arnold, Md., who volunteered for the past two years. "I really enjoy doing taxes."
"Everyone is really nice and very friendly, and they were very grateful that we were there to help them," Johnson said.
Middleton says she is always able to come up with a strong core of volunteers, despite stiff competition for the students' time, especially from activities such as internships, in which the students can receive money, course credit or both.
The student volunteers this past year were Johnson, Travis Daniel, Carolyn Llewellyn, Windy Ruby, Renée Schofield, Megan Stanton, Richard Trujillo and Heidi Yoder. Doug Ellis, Middleton's husband, also assisted.
"I usually end up with a good batch. They're very reliable," Middleton said.
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