A group of low-income-earning New Yorkers received $500,000 in tax refunds last year when fifteen accounting majors from Touro’s Lander College of Arts & Sciences in Brooklyn gave up their weekends to prepare and file online income tax returns for free.
The college students, all Orthodox Jews, are part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program run by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) since 1971.
Touro has been a VITA location since 2011 when the school’s Dean Robert Goldschmidt first learned of the program. Since then each tax season, the school opens its doors on select Sundays so their students can assist hundreds of qualified individuals with incomes below $54,000.
To become an IRS tax law certified volunteer, the students are all required to undergo a six hour long course, learn tax software and tax law issues, pass a multiple choice test and file a series of mock tax returns.
“We’ve gone from a little program to a quite a large program,” shares Joshua Zilberberg, LMSW, the faculty member who oversees Touro’s VITA program. According to Zilberberg, the students typically take twenty minutes to prepare and e-file a standard return while an IRS representative and professor are on-hand to troubleshoot and spot-check their work.
Once the process is complete, clients receive a printed receipt along with their refund information along with an optional customer service survey. Once a return is completed, the computer is wiped clean; erasing all content so there is no record of anyone’s information.
“A United Nations of people come through our doors and all are treated with kindness, warmth and professionalism by our students,” says Zilberberg who estimates that the school spends $20,000 out of pocket a year on laptops, supplies and advertising to host this service for the community.
Shmuli Kendall, 24, a senior at Touro recalls seeing the volunteer opportunity advertised on campus last year and registering. “ I had no expectations going in and it turned out to be a terrific experience and it’s always the first thing that comes up when I go on job interviews,” says Kendall who along with his peer Yurucham Klein have been promoted from preparers to coordinators this season, requiring them to take on additional training and responsibilities including training other volunteers.
According to Kendall, the team has expanded from 15 volunteers to 26 this year, allowing them to deal with more clients.
To date, the students who serve clients in four different languages, have already gotten $425,000 in income tax refunds this season and are continuing to file right up until Tax Day on April 15.
Lisa Abbas, a return client gushes,” I am so proud of how these students are able to learn so fast and do such a great job. They did my taxes last year and again this year”