Ray Slaughter, an accounting professor at University of Richmond, requires students in his Federal Taxation class to volunteer with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at UR Downtown.
VITA is a national service that provides free tax help for people with low incomes, said Kimberly Dean, the UR Downtown director for the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. She said the university’s VITA program serves people making less than $58,000 a year.
Slaughter said the program was developed more than two years ago, when Dean approached Slaughter about hosting a VITA program at UR Downtown as a way for his accounting students to practically apply their skills and engage in the city of Richmond.
“[My students] are providing service to the public,” Slaughter said. “They’re learning how to deal with people, different people with different attitudes and different backgrounds, and they get the good feeling of helping someone.”
The VITA program at UR Downtown is now in its third tax season.
Slaughter said his students were all certified to volunteer with the VITA program at the advanced level, meaning that they were able to not only provide assistance to people who were doing their own tax returns, but also that they could file tax returns for anyone who came to the site.
“Our students get just as much out of it as they give,” Dean said. “Not to mention the practical application aspect, getting to use those number-crunching skills.”
Mike Woitach, a senior in Slaughter’s class, said he had volunteered with the VITA program at UR Downtown twice this semester and that he has found it to be a rewarding experience.
“There’s a lot of talk about profit and shareholders in the business school,” Woitach said, “but it feels good to see people’s faces light up when they realize that they’re going to get a tax refund that ends up equaling 10 percent of their income.”
Slaughter said people with incomes below $50,000 were often dependent on their tax refund.
“There’s a lot of people in the community that need help,” Slaughter said. “If they can get their tax returns done free and they can get their tax refund put in their pocket, that’s a big deal.”
Meredith Combs, another senior in Slaughter’s class, said the university’s VITA program was an opportunity for students to get out of the university setting and immerse themselves in the city.
“It’s a reminder of how fortunate we are that we’re getting the educations we’re getting, and just to kind of give back to those who don’t have the skills or knowledge to do their returns in the best possible way,” Combs said.
This is Combs’ second year volunteering with the program, and she said she had seen a steady growth in the number of people coming to the site.
During the program’s first season, volunteers filed 60 tax returns, and during the second season, volunteers filed 150 tax returns, Dean said.
She said during the program’s first year, people were just learning that the university had a location downtown, much less that they were doing taxes at this location.
“So much of this work is about word of mouth and repeat folks who come back the next season,” Dean said about advertising the program.
Slaughter said UR Downtown was a central location that people needing VITA’s services could easily access by public transportation. Many low-income residents work in the downtown area and they can easily walk to UR Downtown, he said. UR Downtown is also a place where Slaughter can feel his students are safe because Richmond can provide transportation to and from the site, he said.
Slaughter said he hoped that by requiring his students to volunteer with VITA, he is teaching them that they will be happiest in life when they are giving back to the community and helping others.
“The money’s not going to give you happiness,” Slaughter said. “It won’t give you something inside of you that makes you feel good about getting up every day. It’s the giving back that does it.”
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