On a cold February evening in Willimantic, an anxious, middle-aged woman sits beside Nicole Brooks. The woman opens a folder and nervously spreads out an assortment of tax forms, pay stubs and medical bills upon the table. After navigating the paperwork and plugging numbers into a computer program, Brooks turns to the woman to reveal a large, positive number on the screen. The woman’s expression lights up as she gives Brooks a hug and begins to cry.
This was two years ago, when Brooks ’15 was an Eastern Connecticut State University student volunteering with the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program. Brooks is now a staff accountant at a local Connecticut-based firm, but Eastern accounting students continue this work.
For 17 years, Eastern has championed the VITA program in northeast Connecticut. Through VITA, IRS-certified volunteers prepare income taxes free of charge for low- and moderate-income individuals and families.
This season, more than 30 student volunteers and interns are staffing four sites in northeast Connecticut — the ACCESS Agency in Willimantic, Putnam Library, Stafford Library and KIDSAFE in Vernon — as well as several pop-up sites at area hospitals and housing developments.
“Eastern has the only academic program in this region of Connecticut involved with VITA,” said Accounting Professor Mohd RuJoub, who brought the program to Eastern in 1998 when he joined the faculty. “Our students run the program and provide all the time and effort. They invest thousands of hours in the program yearly.”
VITA offers a major economic boost to the lower-income families who may not properly file their taxes or take advantage of the credits and deductions they are entitled to, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Last year, more than one quarter of the filers in the Windham region (who used VITA) were eligible for this credit, receiving an average of $1,334 from the EITC alone.
“In our state, one in three families is struggling to make ends meet,” said Maura Cook of United Way, a partner with VITA that provides funding and recruits volunteers. “Tax refunds can be a huge boost to financial security. That’s why we feel so passionate about VITA. Communities are better off when families are secure.”
“We don’t want families to spend hundreds of dollars for paid preparers when they don’t have that money to spend, trying to make ends meet,” said Laura O’Keefe, family financial stability coordinator with The Village, the VITA partner that trains and certifies volunteers. “Tax season is a perfect opportunity for families to start saving and make steps toward their financial goals.”
While their volunteer time supports grateful families, Eastern students also benefit from the experience. “I will never forget the gratitude expressed by our clients,” said Brooks, reflecting on that woman two years ago. “She made very little money; it was amazing to be able to help ease some of her financial stress.” Brooks is now a staff accountant with the Glastonbury firm Nicola, Yester and Company P.C.
For Chris Gardella ’15, a recurrent volunteer with the program, “VITA impacted my life in two major ways,” he said. “Professionally, VITA impacted my career as an accountant and opened the door for me at KPMG (the firm he now works at full time). The program also impacted my life personally.
“The reactions and gratitude you get from clients definitely leaves a mark on you. That alone is what keeps me coming back to work with VITA and what drives me to continue working with the program for years to come.”
This tax season, Gardella is serving as coordinator of the ACCESS site, where he oversees the site in a managerial role. “This consists of ensuring we have volunteers for every shift, identifying and settling any issues that may arise, and checking over each tax return for quality.”
Helping Gardella and other volunteers to reach their level of competency was O’Keefe, who brought the training to Eastern. The multi-day, 14-hour training briefs the students in tax law, acquaints them with the software Tax Wise, and requires them to pass several tests.
“The biggest thing is the customer service experience; the soft skills part of the program,” said O’Keefe. “In school, students do mock returns and learn textbook knowledge. That whole situation is changed when you add the human element. When you’re actually sitting across from someone in need, seeing how grateful they are, realizing the impact. A lot of people are really intimidated at first, but once they do it, they love it.”
This season, seven students have elected to participate in the VITA internship for course credit. To complete the internship, students work 16 hours a week and complete 224 hours during the season, and “they tend to be excellent tax preparers,” said Cook.
The dedication of the Eastern students participating in the program is noteworthy. Christine Gaumond ’16 is a nontraditional student who works full time, is a mother and still finds time to volunteer. “Last year I put in all the sick and vacation time I had; I volunteered six days a week.” On top of that, she commutes nearly an hour from Killingly to volunteer at KIDSAFE in Vernon. “When you love to do something, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
“As a single parent, I know how hard it can be to make ends meet. It’s awesome to help those people out. I feel bad because many of our clients who just found out about VITA come in to our sites and talk about how they paid hundreds of dollars to do their taxes in the past.”
This year, Gaumond is serving as the site coordinator at KIDSAFE. “Our biggest downfall is not enough people know about VITA.” To get the word out, Gaumond designs and distributes flyers around town. “Even if someone doesn’t qualify, hopefully they’ll have the information to pass on the word.”
Gaumond also promotes her site on social media. “I feel that strongly about the program. I’m constantly talking about it; I’ll be at the grocery store saying, ‘Hey, if you know anyone that meets these income requirements, they can get their taxes done for free!’”
The benefits of VITA are significant for all parties involved — from the clients who receive the refunds to the local economies that are enriched to the students who prepare and file the returns. “This amazing opportunity allows our students to gain valuable experience and IRS tax certification, as well as the skills to communicate with clients and interact with a variety of people from all walks of life,” said RuJoub, who also points out the resume building and networking opportunities with certified public accountants. “We plan to participate in this marvelous program for many years to come!”
“We always get a tremendous group of students from Eastern,” said O’Keefe. “They’re very responsible, engaged and interested in learning more. They provide an excellent caliber of students.” Cook adds, “Those students are the reason the numbers are so high in Windham County. The participation grows every year, that’s a testament to Dr. RuJoub; he really cares about this program.”
For the full list of VITA sites and hours of operation, visit https://unitedwayinc.org/2016VITASites. To schedule an appointment, call 2-1-1.