University of Virginia student Wei Lin, who grew up in Centreville, remembers as a child going with his mother to the local library, where she could get help with the family taxes through the national Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.
Because his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1990s, were applying for citizenship, it was vital to have accurate tax records, Lin said. As a child, he knew something important was happening at those visits, even if he didn’t understand what, he added.
Lin, now a fourth-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, remembered the patience and diligence of the volunteer working through his family’s documents, and his mother’s “tears of happiness” when the preparer handed her a ready-to-mail return. He said the refund they received helped his family pay rent and other bills and kept food on the table.
“My mother could barely speak English, and I can’t imagine how difficult it might have been [for the volunteer] to work both as a tax filer and impromptu translator,” Lin said.
“It was a pivotal experience and one I hold dear to my heart. I wish every day I could pay back those same volunteers who helped my family during our trying first years in the U.S.,” he said.
And then, unexpectedly, he found a way – albeit indirectly.
As a first-year student, Lin found out that Madison House, the student volunteer center at UVA, had a similar program to help people with low incomes file their taxes accurately and maximize their returns. Remembering how much that benefitted his family, he decided he would “pay it forward” by helping others in the same way.
“I had tremendous appreciation for that program,” said Lin, who after graduating will work with a New York investment bank where he interned this summer.
Now in its 10th year, CASH – which stands for “Creating Assets, Savings and Hope” – trains student volunteers to offer help during tax season, which this year runs from Jan. 29 to April 18. The volunteers take an exam to become IRS-certified, and their tax return accuracy rate is 99 percent.
Lin, having volunteered as a tax preparer for two years and as head program director for the second year in a row, figures he has completed or reviewed at least 1,000 tax forms – many more than the average person will take on over a lifetime.
This year, he has doubled the size of the program, going from 110 volunteers to 220, including 22 program directors. One group comes from the UVA Law School, which partners with the Madison House program. The program arranges meeting sites with UVA Human Resources and the Medical Center, as well as the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center, and new this year, the Charlottesville Free Clinic.
Last year, in partnership with the local chapter of United Way, CASH volunteers helped file more than 2,400 returns resulting in a direct economic impact of $4 million to the Charlottesville community. Since 2007, the volunteers’ work has resulted in more than $29 million of direct economic impact to the Charlottesville community, according to United Way.
Amy Ackerman, Madison House volunteer programs coordinator, has worked with Lin for the last two years, advising him on the CASH program. “He is one of the most committed and dedicated students I work with and I admire his ability to never give up,” she said.
“Despite coordinating one of the most unique programs, Wei decided he would expand the program to reach more clients. Beyond that, Wei not only considers the impact that his program has on the community, but he thinks about the experience the UVA student volunteers are having and how he can work to improve that to make it the best it can be as well.”
“The efforts of the volunteers account for the program’s success,” Lin said. “They’re willing to give their volunteer time to help others prepare their taxes” – not many people’s idea of a fun time. “The great thing is, it’s really tangible,” he said.
“Working with the clients, face-to-face, is the best part for the volunteers,” he said. “Many people probably wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise.”
Some people come back every year and ask for the same volunteer because they feel more comfortable having the same person deal with their financial information. Some hug their volunteers or have their children make a card for them, Lin said.
Usually, the clients’ gratitude comes from finding out their tax refund will be more than expected. However, Lin recalled one client who owed money, a graduate student who didn’t realize her stipend would be taxed and didn’t have that extra cash in her budget. But not long after, she made a point of letting Lin know that she was able to work out a payment plan with the IRS.
There’s no shortage of willing students and those who need help, according to Lin. Bringing in more corporate donors like Ernst & Young, Deloitte and the Barracks Road Chipotle has enabled Madison House to expand the program to cover a larger portion of expenses, such as supplies and training materials, not to mention food for all of those volunteers. (Madison House, although closely affiliated with the University, is an independent non-profit community organization.)
With this growth, he hopes to help at least 5,000 clients and make a direct economic impact to the community of $5 million this year.
“Wei is a true leader at Madison House, UVA and in our community,” Ackerman said. “His humble attitude and persistent work ethic lead me to believe that Wei will continue to be very successful in his life.”