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Tax assistance program provides free service to community, learning opportunity for student volunteers

Gerri Weed and Catthy Phan work on taxes at Carroll Community College on Friday February 5, 2016. (Note: names are spelled correctly)
Gerri Weed and Catthy Phan work on taxes at Carroll Community College on Friday February 5, 2016. (Note: names are spelled correctly) (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Free tax preparation assistance provided by students at Carroll Community and McDaniel colleges is not only helpful to the individuals it serves, but also allows students to learn the tax code and other valuable skills.

Students were occupied providing assistance to people Friday afternoon at Carroll Community College, answering questions, inputting tax data and explaining tax returns, under the supervision of Kate Demarest, professor of accounting.

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"It's a really good experience; even if they don't intend to do taxes [as part of a career], they learn great customer service skills," she said.

For the first time, the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program, is being offered jointly by Carroll Community and McDaniel colleges. Both schools decided to consolidate their programs in order to increase operational efficiencies, said Kerry Duvall, assistant professor of accounting at McDaniel College.

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"With the McDaniel students, it brings us more volunteers and they're all really awesome students," Demarest said. "It's building a closer partnership between the two schools."

VITA provides tax preparation help to individuals and families who earn low-to-moderate income of $53,000 or less. To qualify, taxpayers can be self-employed, but they can't have inventory, Demarest said.

Residents who want their taxes prepared must bring photo identification; their Social Security card or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number card; tax documents such as a W-2 and 1099 form; a Social Security statement if the person is collecting Social Security; and a 1095A, 1095C, or other information about health insurance coverage during the year. Demarest said bringing a prior return is helpful but not required.

The service will be provided until April 15 in the Carroll Community College library by appointment only, she said.

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McDaniel junior Elijah Jones, an accounting major who volunteered for VITA last year, input tax information into a software program called TaxWise.

"For me, I'm just doing it for the sake of doing it; I like it because it gives me good experience," said Jones, who was offered three summer internships due to his work with the program. "I was surprised how much they asked me about it."

Demarest said volunteering for the program is a great way for students looking to gain job experience while also helping their community. Students at McDaniel receive an internship credit for volunteering up to 37 hours in the VITA program, while Carroll Community students usually don't opt for internship credit since it typically doesn't transfer, according to Demarest.

"I think it a great reference for jobs because anyone who is going to show up consistently to be a volunteer, they're going to be a good employee and be responsible about showing up," Demarest said, who has served as a job reference for volunteers in the past.

"They're going to see a lot of different kinds of returns; they have to a lot of critical thinking and problem solving, and they have to know when to ask for help," Demarest said. "That's a big part of the mix; I've been doing this for years and there are still things that come up that I have to research."

Duvall said there are numerous benefits for business majors who volunteer for the program.

"They get to know the tax laws and then be able to help people at the same time," she said.

Carroll Community student Paul Zacagnini, 19, was among those sat waiting for help with filing his tax return. He learned about the free service from his personal finance instructor and thought it wise to make use of the service.

"Why not take advantage of anything that is free and is available to you?" he said.

While most of the people who use the service are from Carroll County, Baltimore County and southern Pennsylvania, students Michele Yonga and Chenwi Ngwa traveled from their home in Anne Arundel County to take advantage of the free service. It was the third year in a row they had received tax assistance at Carroll Community, they said.

Yonga said the couple decided to return because their information is already on file, which makes the process easier. "We're comfortable with the people here," she added.

Westminster resident Shirley Black, a part-time house cleaner, said it was also her third year using the service.

"It's good; it helps me out a lot," said Black, who needed help understanding how to correctly fill out her tax return.

Westminster resident Gerri Weed, who works in an accounting office and takes an accounting class at Carroll Community, was among student volunteers from Carroll Community.

"It's great hands-on experience," said Weed, who doesn't currently help with tax preparation where she works, but hopes to be able to soon. "Taxes — I find them to be intimidating, so it's really nice to be able to help people through that."

410-857-7862

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Human Services Program of Carroll County (HSP) is also offering free tax preparation assistance until April 15. They are located at 10 Distillery Drive, Suite G1 in Westminster. The free service is for low-to-moderate income households, or those who earned $53,000 or less in 2015. To schedule an appointment call 410-857-2999. Hours of operation are 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 5.

Free tax assistance:

To make an appointment for tax preparation assistance at Carroll Community College, call 410-386-8242.

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