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Student volunteers make big impact with tax help to 600-plus Gainesville families

VITA

Sonia Singh and Joe Malca, both 2Ls, co-direct the University of Florida's chapter of the national organization Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). (Photo by Amanda Adams)

By Jared Misner
Student Writer

Sonia Singh walked down the stairs leading to the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard on a Wednesday night long after the sun had set, tax law textbooks overflowing in her arms.

Singh (2L) wondered whether she should retrieve a box of Internal Revenue Service papers from her car after meeting with the federal tax collection agency for two hours earlier that day.

For many, the prospect of a two-hour meeting with the IRS might seem distressing. But for Singh, it's business as usual.

Along with Joe Malca (2L), Singh co-directs the University of Florida College of Law's chapter of the national organization Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). It is designed to provide low-income people with free tax returns during tax season from Feb. 1 until April 7.

"I don't think people realize the effect they're having when they're providing well over 600 Gainesville families with free tax returns," Malca said.

And according to Malca's own estimates, that number of 600 free returns and an estimated $5.7 million in tax refunds in 2010 is a low estimate. Those numbers could actually climb much higher as the organization continues to grow.

"It's a good way to give back. We're usually giving them good news," Malca said of those whose taxes he prepares for free.

Singh, who graduated with her Master of Accounting from UF in 2009, said VITA is geared toward helping those with low to moderate incomes of up to $49,000 per person, but she said she doesn't recall a time she or any of the other 100 student volunteers denied someone the free services VITA offers.

Both Singh and Malca stressed that the number of volunteers still has room to grow. Since they have been passing out fliers since October, the number of law-student volunteers has more than doubled from the previous year's number of 48.

"There are a lot of people that run away when they see the word 'tax,' but we try and run after them," Singh said.

Singh's acknowledgment of the often-daunting language of taxation, however, was quickly followed with VITA's baby-steps method of catering to those who know very little about taxes. She said only a few VITA volunteers are interested in tax law.

"You don't need to know anything before you come in," Malca said. "We'll provide you with all the information you need."

And the IRS is happy to help teach people, Malca said. Volunteers need only pass a basic and an intermediate open-book test to begin volunteering, both of which the IRS sends along with other materials to VITA chapters across the country. To further calm the fears of nervous first-time volunteers, Malca said every return is reviewed by a volunteer who has at least one year of experience with VITA.

"We're trying to tell them it really is just asking questions," Singh said. She noted the easy-to-use computer software that calculates each individual tax return. "It's really not that difficult. People just get really intimidated when they see tax forms."

For those who can't overcome their fear of tax forms, Malca noted the importance of volunteering in a different capacity. VITA offers many different administrative tasks all of which count for community service hours toward the pro bono certificate upon graduation, including reading tax forms to international or elderly clients.

"The clients that come here have been coming for years," Singh said, "and they're all just so nice."

Although Singh and Malca both stressed the importance of earning community service hours and gaining valuable experience in the useful field of taxation, the co-directors noted the most rewarding benefit of belonging to VITA is the relationships formed among law students and clients.

"We're almost a family," Singh said. "We all know each other. We have a real connection with the community."

Singh recalled one female client in particular who, according to Singh, has been coming to the law school for a free tax return for the last five years and is now so familiar with the volunteers at VITA, she asks for people by name. It's clear, as Malca nodded his head in agreement, VITA is not short on commitment.

Instead, the organization is struggling to pay its own bills. Fueled largely by generous donations from professors, the United Way and a few other sources, the organization has to conjure creative ways every night to feed its volunteers who work through dinnertime, they said.

"It's a lot of pizza," Malca said. "We've worked out a lot of deals with Domino's."

As Malca, Singh and the 100 or so other volunteers prepare for the next tax season in the coming days, both co-directors noted the passion for what they're doing even amid their hectic final examinations.

"I always felt like this was more important than studying because I felt so good every time I left," Malca said.

VITA prepares taxes every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening from 5-9 p.m. until April 7. Volunteers are asked to help four hours per week and to bring their laptops.