Most high school students don’t look to the IRS to help them fulfill their service hour requirements . But if you’re a junior or senior at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School and it’s tax season, you can spend those hours preparing people’s tax returns.
For the third consecutive year, through a partnership with Catholic Charities, juniors and seniors at the high school have the opportunity to become trained, IRS-certified volunteer tax preparers and travel into Camden every Saturday during tax season to help low-income individuals file their taxes.
Catholic Charities is an authorized site for the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. It allows individuals and families who make less than $53,000 a year to e-file their taxes for free with the help of certified volunteer filers.
“They’re amazing kids,” said Andy Zmuda, Catholic Charities’ director of asset development programs who runs the agency’s VITA services. “This is a highly technical and specialized kind of service and there’s a lot of training and preparation that goes into it. There’s a high degree of responsibility and trust.”
Volunteers go through several hours of online training in addition to in-person training sessions staffed by the IRS and held both at Catholic Charities and Bishop Eustace. Catholic Charities program makes training available to volunteers from the high school, Catholic Charities staff and other interested community members.
The tax preparation clinic operates for four hours every Saturday beginning the first week of February and ending mid-April. On those Saturdays, the majority of volunteers staffing the clinic are high school students. Seniors make a commitment to be at the clinic for all four hours every week.
Senior John Brown, who is president of the Bishop Eustace student body, began volunteering through the program last year as a junior, even though he had already completed his service hour requirement, as a way to give back.
“When you think of filing taxes you think about numbers and dealing with mathematical stuff. But it’s actually a lot of interaction with people,” Brown said. “It’s very personal; the first thing we do is a one-on-one interview. It’s rewarding to have that kind of interaction.”
The experience came up during college interviews, Brown said, and impressed his interviewers.
“There are not a lot of high school students who can say they know how to file taxes,” Zmuda said. “I think young men and women can do difficult things and have a great capacity to be stretched. They really do rise to the occasion.”
In the program’s first year, volunteers filed 35 returns. Last year that number jumped to 130 and this year the hope is to exceed 300 returns. Catholic Charities plans to add evening clinic hours in addition to the Saturdays and another site in one of the other counties served by the diocese.
Individuals pay between $150 and $250 to have their tax returns filed in the private sector. In addition to these immediate savings, the program helps low-income individuals avoid unscrupulous preparers or those who might try to take advantage of them through tax refund loans, which are associated with high fees and interest rates.
“Some people who come in don’t have a bank account. When we see that, we ask if they’re interested in opening a savings account. We can get them in touch with someone from one of our banking partners and then reschedule their tax session,” Zmuda said.
“We have information available during the tax sessions that advertise some of our other services, like our matched savings program,” Zmuda said. “The goal of all of these services is to help people have a sense of competence and confidence around their ability to manage and grow their family’s financial legacy,” Zmuda said.
Student volunteers said it gave them an insight into poverty in the region.
Senior Emily Quinn is volunteering this tax season for the second year and has been promoted to the role of site manager because of her exceptional work last year.
“You get to see how other people live. It’s an eye opening opportunity. You see someone who comes in with three W2’s and you realize they’re working three part-time jobs. It’s nice to know you’re helping as much as you can,” Quinn said.
Bishop Eustace service program uses an intentional approach that gradually increases students’ requirements and involvement over their four years of high school. Patricia Arnold, who heads the high school’s campus ministry department, said opportunities like this one are a way for students to discover their potential.
“It’s an opportunity for them to grow in whatever ways they need to: meeting with the public, becoming aware of the needs of people, using their talents,” Arnold said.
“The more seeds we plant in them, the more they grow. They’re amazed by the people they meet.”
VITA tax preparation services through Catholic Charities are by appointment only. To schedule, visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Taxes. For more information about the program and on becoming an IRS-certified tax preparer volunteer, contact Andy.Zmuda@camdendiocese.org.