During tax season each year, the Georgia United Credit Union and Georgia United Foundation partner with the University of Georgia to provide free tax assistance to Athens residents through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Through the program, UGA students help Athens residents fill out their taxes while becoming certified by the IRS and receiving course credit for their work.
This year, the 120 student volunteers prepared 1,242 tax returns through 2,880 hours of service, according to a Georgia United Foundation news release. The returns led to $304,148 in state and $1,059,927 in federal tax refunds, the release said.
The Georgia United Foundation’s VITA program was created 15 years ago but faced challenges this year due to COVID-19 interfering with the in-person process. The students, faculty and Georgia United Foundation had to discover new methods to provide tax assistance while socially distancing themselves.
“We had to contact a few hundred people to say that our tax preparers unfortunately could not meet with them for assistance because they had to shelter in place,” said Kim Wall, director of business and community development for Georgia United Credit Union. “Fortunately, they were very understanding and we found new ways to assist them.”
Lance Palmer, professor of financial planning in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, led the team of students by teaching the foundations in class then sending them into the field for hands-on experience with tax assistance.
There were many tax returns outstanding due to the shelter-in-place orders made during the end of tax season, resulting in new systems and methods put into place, Palmer said.
He said obtaining signatures for sensitive information while not being in-person was one challenge, leading the faculty members to introduce both students and community members with alternative methods, such as making Zoom calls for tax assistance, clarification and confirmation.
“We always want the students to gain confidence when working with taxes, gain confidence with working with clients and understand that there is always an answer to the problem they have,” Palmer said.
The VITA program has provided assistance for different groups of need-based participants, such as refugees, Phillip York, a former independent social worker, said. VITA provided an alternative form of tax assistance to them by allowing them to pursue local assistance instead of having to travel to Atlanta as they previously had.
“We thought they were very professional and helped people feel comfortable,” York said. “There’s an inherent question if everything is being handled properly at first, given that it’s students, but it’s easy to see that they were transparent and ensured every detail was checked.”
Many of the students are pursuing a career in financial planning, finances or accounting. Molly Arrowood, a senior financial planning major and VITA volunteer, said it was a valuable experience for gaining trust in clients while learning to handle unfamiliar situations in an efficient way.
“The value the credit union provides by letting us volunteer and be out in the field is so great,” Arrowood said. “Some of these situations can’t always be learned in a classroom setting and wouldn’t have been taught if we weren’t out doing the real thing.”