March 18, 2008 — University of Virginia student volunteer Deborah Perl managed to find a $5,000 refund for her first client in Charlottesville this tax season, who earned about $15,000 a year.
"It's one of those things — I know I'm going to help someone," said Perl, a third-year commerce student with a minor in economics. "You get money back to people who don't make much. You see the results of your work."
Twenty U.Va. volunteers — undergraduates and law students — and the two staff members of Urban Vision, a nonprofit service agency, have helped 77 taxpayers so far this year collect some $72,457 in earned-income tax credit funds.
Perl established her group — Creating Assets, Savings and Hope, or CASH — in U.Va.'s volunteer center, Madison House. CASH is partnering with Urban Vision through a federal program, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. The students work out of Charlottesville's Friendship Court community center where people can drop in to get help with their taxes. The group also works with and volunteers at the Monticello Area Community Action Agency.
Citizens with low to moderate incomes are vulnerable targets for commercial tax-preparation outfits that promise rapid refunds but charge fees high enough to reach 30 percent to 40 percent of the refund amount, Perl said. People often don't know they can get free help.
Residents in the public housing area started showing up to the neighborhood community center seeking tax help in the program's busiest month — January, not April, because they are more likely to get refunds and need the extra cash. More lower-income residents receive refunds than have to pay taxes, but many don't know they are eligible. They often don't file a tax return because they're below the poverty line.
Perl said 25 percent of people eligible for earned income tax credits do not claim them.
Earned income tax credit "is the No. 1 program lifting people out of poverty," said Perl, who began helping low-income individuals with their taxes in high school as a VITA volunteer when she interned for the Fairfax County Office of Partnerships for underserved communities. She has gone back to work there during school breaks.
Perl and her volunteers in the Charlottesville area — she's mostly supervising them now — are also filling a need. A local coalition, including the Chamber of Commerce, United Way and AARP, asked CASH to provide more volunteers this year.
Said Toya Washington, program director of Urban Vision: "We're able to serve more taxpayers and expand the hours outside of the business day — that's the greatest help." The student volunteers take shifts on Saturday mornings and twice a week in the evenings.
"Deborah is great to work with," Washington said. "She communicates well and is a great liaison. She has helped a lot of people."
Perl credits the success so far to strong community partners, word of mouth about their service and the advantages that being part of Madison House brings.
Volunteers can sign up in their first year at U.Va. and get the proper preparation; the IRS trains and certifies them. Madison House offers leadership training to ensure the organization will continue after its founders and volunteers graduate. Perl is working with a co-program director, Ellen Shippert, who is in her second year and will take over in fall 2009.
In addition to being available to city dwellers, the volunteers also help members of the migrant community, another group in need, Perl said.
It took less than 24 hours for Commerce School students to answer her call via e-mail and fill 20 volunteer slots, she said. She hopes to expand the service to provide more financial information and to reach other housing agencies.
Madison House is the largest student volunteer center at the University of Virginia. The organization coordinates volunteers in almost 20 different programs, develops leaders, builds community partnerships and promotes lifelong volunteer service.