As April 15 looms in the not-so-distant future, students from the Tax Assistance Program (TAP) are heading into South Bend to provide free aid and tax services for low-income and disabled taxpayers in the local community.
“Essentially, we are about providing free income tax assistance to people who cannot afford to pay a professional at the same time that we provide practical and hands-on practice for students,” TAP faculty coordinator Ken Milani said.
Nearly 100 volunteers from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s visit nine different locations in South Bend and Mishawaka from February through April. These students file more than 3,000 tax income returns, according to Milani.
“We clearly do something very different from a lot of other college programs when we go to the taxpayers,” Milani said.
Bringing the service to libraries and other community centers lessens the intimidation factor and makes participating in TAP more convenient for those that need the help the most, he said.
Milani said volunteering at TAP is “an eye-opening experience” for students.
“The major benefits for students really focus on the practical experience of working with clients in a real world situation and gaining a real understanding of what it means to be among the working poor in South Bend,” Milani said.
Senior Caitlin Flynn is stationed at River Park Library for her second year with TAP.
“The most awesome part of TAP is that we provide the service for free,” Flynn said. “The fee to go to a professional for this is a big deal for a lot of these people, and it is really hard when someone’s return is too complicated for what we can do.”
To be involved with TAP, students must take a class on federal income taxes, spend the first four weeks of the spring semester in detailed training and pass an IRS exam. The students focus on learning the nuances of the refunds specific to the program’s low-income demographic.
“This is a really cool volunteer opportunity,” graduate student Dana Gates said. “It is a specialized service that not many people know how to do.”
Senior Ronnie Thompson said he is particularly excited to work on a “SWAT” team — groups of volunteers that makes special visits to homes and hospital rooms.
“With TAP, I am using my accounting background and class work knowledge to help others who need it,” Thompson said.
“The most difficult part is trying to do the tax return right,” Gates said. “We get examples in class, but each person is different. We care about what we do, so we want to get it right.”
While the program has expanded substantially since its conception in 1972, Milani would like to see an electronic sector for TAP in the future.
TAP has successfully adapted to people’s needs over the past 30 years, Flynn said.
“I know at this point that the amount of Spanish speakers is not a whole lot,” Thompson said. “I am only one of two at my site, so I think that the program could reach out to more students who could help with this area.”