For many, tax season can be overwhelming. At UR Downtown, students and local volunteers ease the burden by offering free tax help to anyone who earned less than $51,000 in the previous tax year.

UR Downtown’s free tax-preparation services are a part of an IRS-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Fourteen organizations in metro Richmond serve as VITA sites through a local MetroCASH coalition, helping thousands of individuals and families save money and claim millions of dollars in combined federal and earned-income-tax-credit refunds.

In its second year of operation, UR Downtown’s VITA site successfully filed 142 tax returns between February 2 and April 13, 2013. This number significantly surpassed last year’s total of 61 returns.

"In the beginning, we were off to a slow start, but the volunteers continued to show up, and clients eventually started coming," said Kishema Hodge, VITA site coordinator. "Before we knew it, we were completing tax returns and building rapport with our clients."

"It was exciting to connect with so many more clients this year," said Henry Trinh, '15, Bonner Scholar and UR Downtown student coordinator.

Students from Dr. Ray Slaughter’s Federal Taxation and Advanced Federal Taxation courses each devoted 10 volunteer hours to UR Downtown’s VITA site during the spring semester.

Aaron Shapiro, ’13, served as a tax preparer responsible for providing free tax-preparation services and electronic filing of federal and state returns. Before volunteering, he completed tax-law and tax-preparation training and successfully passed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) certification exam.

"The experience has given me good exposure and a foundation to build upon when I begin my career as an accountant," Shapiro said. "It was great to see a client’s reaction when they learned they would be getting a nice tax refund."

Anum Mizra, a Virginia Commonwealth University student, volunteered at UR Downtown, because of the site’s convenient location on Broad Street.

"I also thought it would give me the opportunity to network with students from a different university," Mizra said.

As an assisted self-tax prep (ASTP) coach, Mizra guided clients through the online-filing process and provided answers to general tax questions, a service that empowers individuals to take control, increase their financial literacy, and achieve economic independence. ASTP coaches also attend tax-law and tax-prep training and obtain IRS basic-level certification.

"The most rewarding part about being a VITA volunteer would have to be that I got to help the community with the knowledge I gained from class," Mizra said. "I learned how to work with others and how to communicate with the different clients effectively."

As the IRS promotes the benefits of e-filing nationwide, VITA will continue to play a key role in providing support for individuals and families at the local level.

"Without a doubt, I know that this experience impacted the student volunteers in many ways, and the majority of the clients were satisfied with the tax services we provided them," Hodge said.