by Asia Rambo, PNC Bank
Through a partnership with United Way of Central Alabama and PNC Bank, University of Alabama at Birmingham students combine classroom skills with real-world lessons to provide free income tax filing help to lower-income people.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – As a forensic accounting major, Jaylon Williams knows analysis and attention to detail are crucial when it comes to paying income taxes.
It’s also a reason why the University of Alabama at Birmingham junior is an effective volunteer who helps lower-income people to prepare and submit their income tax returns.
For nearly a decade, UAB has worked with the United Way of Central Alabama to provide free help through the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Eligible families and individuals earn less than $54,000 per year. In Birmingham, the median earned income for VITA clients is $21,000.
“VITA clients are very diverse in age and demographics, but the one thing they have in common is their socioeconomic status,” Williams said. “People come to us after paying $200 to file or lose five percent of their refund to get the check cashed in the past. We have the opportunity to talk to them about their finances, how to save money and to help them understand their financial missteps.”
Volunteers = Big Savings
UAB accounting and business students volunteer at the United Way’s computer lab every Saturday from January to May. They answer financial questions and offer free, reliable tax assistance to families and individuals earning less than $54,000 a year.
In 2015, working with the UAB’s Collat School of Business and PNC Bank, the local United Way helped nearly 3,500 families and individuals receive $2.4 million in tax refunds through the VITA program. UAB students donated more than 500 hours, helping VITA clients save an estimated $67,000 that they may have spent on tax preparation.
The need for more certified volunteers with the skills to find crucial tax credits and savings has increased along with the demand for free tax services. It’s a challenge UAB faculty advisor Dr. Jenice Prather-Kinsey is all too familiar with in her role as a VITA volunteer, recruiter and trainer.
“We awarded 45 certifications for training in 2016. Many of those students do additional VITA training elsewhere or may decide not to volunteer with us at all,” said Kinsey. “While it’s great we can train them to go out and do more in the community, it’s difficult to maintain a consistent volunteer core here.”
And with only 40 computers available for volunteers to file taxes, expanding the program’s capacity to serve even more clients is at the top of Dr. Kinsey’s wish list.
“The United Way has more clients than volunteers,” said Kinsey, a four-year student advisor veteran. “Even though we may run late to help everyone, we’ve never turned a client away and our appointments will fill up weeks in advance.”
To help attract more volunteers, PNC has provided more than $30,000 in grant funding. The money has paid for computers, student VITA training and creation of the Accounting Career Awareness Program, a pilot program to raise awareness in accounting and finance careers for minority high school students.
PNC’s support also extends to the free cashing of refund checks at select branches, prepaid refund cards and financial education programs in the Birmingham community.
“UAB and the United Way are important partners in the community, so we felt it was important to fund their efforts to recruit and train qualified students for the program,” said Michele Jenkins Utomi, PNC’s community development banker for the Alabama market.
United Way Leads the Way
United Way Tax Assistant Coordinator Judy Allen guides student and community volunteers through the rigorous IRS certification program.
In addition to two ethics classes, a basic tax prep filing course as well as an advanced filing course, Allen and her team review each prepared tax form for accuracy before the electronic filing process.
The extensive training and oversight give UAB students the benefit of real-world experience and access to a network of mentors to help advance their career.
“We provide a service opportunity for students to use their classroom training, strengthen their skills and make a significant impact in the community,” Allen said. “We also connect students with community volunteers to help broaden their professional opportunities.”
Williams, the UAB junior, is one of 45 students from the university’s chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) who are certified volunteers. As a student and president of the NABA student chapter, he juggles a hectic schedule of classes and a full-time internship to volunteer on Saturdays.
Now in his fourth year as a volunteer, Williams appreciates the real-world experience as well as the opportunity to work one-on-one with clients that range in age from 17 to 90 years old.
“More than anything else as a student, it feels great to look at someone’s W2 and show concern for them, knowing you helped them file their taxes and save them upwards of $200,” Williams said. “The best reward for me is filing an accurate tax return and seeing the client’s smile from ear to ear when I tell them what refund their family will receive.”