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Creating a time of savings during tax season

Evan Avila never imagined he would be interested in tax law. Now, as the UMBC site coordinator for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, he cannot imagine not being interested in tax law. “I never thought I would find it interesting, but I really enjoyed what the work ended up being about,” he said, after wrapping up an informational session for new recruits.

Avila, a junior economics and political science double major, was approached three years ago by upperclassmen Soren Clarkwest, Jeremy Matthews and Evan Leiter-Mason. The three Sondheim scholars had started the on-campus VITA site and were now site coordinators in the midst of recruiting for the upcoming tax season. VITA is offered on the UMBC campus through a special partnership with the Maryland CASH Campaign. The CASH Campaign, which stands for “Creating Assets, Savings and Hope,” aims to provide help and economic advancement to lower-income families with a number of free services geared to promote greater financial education and action, like VITA does. Specifically, VITA offers free tax help to households that make less than $54,000 a year, persons with disabilities and those with limited English speaking abilities.

After completing basic training, Avila ended up being one of 46 volunteers in VITA’s second year as a student organization on the UMBC campus. His next year, he completed advanced training, allowing him to file taxes for individuals who also act as sole proprietors and need to file both income taxes and business taxes, like Uber or Lyft drivers.

This year he is excited to be leading the fresh group of volunteers as the VITA site coordinator, a role he stepped into last semester after VITA completed 355 tax returns last tax season. He will lead one section of the three-part training, which culminates in an eight-hour session held by Rob Bader, a tax lawyer and the Director of Tax Operations for the Maryland CASH Campaign.

This marathon session culminates in a two-hour exam, which is designed to test volunteers on what they have learned throughout their readings and the training sessions. “It’s designed so everyone passes,” Avila says. “The IRS doesn’t throw any curveballs.”

This year, however, there will be a few key changes to tax law that VITA volunteers will have to watch out for. The biggest is that Obamacare-era penalties will be going away and individuals will no longer have to pay a tax penalty for not buying health insurance. The textbook they use to teach the course will be entirely rewritten, Avila says, but it likely will not be finished until January.

At the backbone of the VITA organization is Trisha Wells, Assistant Vice Provost for Administration and Finance in the Division of Professional Programs. Wells has been a VITA volunteer for eight years since she started at Prince George’s Community College and has been with the UMBC site since its inception. “Many of our students have volunteered for multiple years and become quite skilled in tax preparation,” writes Wells in an email communication. “They mentor new student volunteers and, as a team, provide this valuable service to greater Baltimore … I can’t believe how lucky I am to be able to support such an amazing student program that helps so many people each year.”

“We wouldn’t exist without Trisha,” Avila says. “We are very lucky to receive support from many stakeholders at UMBC.” The program, which runs on the weekends from the beginning of February to Tax Day, is hosted in the Apartment Community Center. The Division of Information Technology provides computers for the volunteers, and the Career Center helps out with recruiting. The Economics department also offers academic credit (ECON 313) to students who volunteer with VITA.

Avila, who plans to stay with the site until he graduates, is particularly excited about this year’s crop of volunteers and the new information he will get to teach since the tax laws have changed. “You learn so much about everything,” he says. “The second year I was here … I started reading the [text]book for fun.”

Information sessions for volunteering with VITA will be held on Thursday, November 8 at 11:30 a.m. and Monday, November 19 at 4 p.m. in Commons 332.