Sunday, April 15, 2012

Learning by giving


Business majors Brad Brubaker, Scarlett McCoy and Trey Moore
 volunteer to help low-income people file IRS tax returns in the 
Lynn Business Center.

Spring is the season when some of the people passing through the busy lobby of the Lynn Business Center aren’t professors or students headed to class. These visitors to campus don’t wear backpacks, don’t carry laptops or books.

They’re looking for help – not an education.

In fact, they’re looking for business student Scarlett McCoy or one of her seven colleagues who are in the business of changing lives and making the world a better place – one tax return at a time.

That may sound a little pretentious or overly dramatic, but on a community level, on a very personal level, it’s true. Just ask those business students who, as trained United Way volunteers, use their business skills without fee to file income tax returns for low- to moderate-income families and seniors under the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

“Throughout my three years at Stetson, I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing programs, community partners and service sites,” said McCoy, a junior Management major from Melrose, Fla. “But nothing I’ve been a part of, to me, has the biggest direct impact on individual lives.

“On most days, I feel like Santa Claus!”

She’s not exaggerating.

“The first return I ever completed was the most meaningful and impactful for me,” she recalls. The young parents of a 2-year-old-son and newborn girl had been laid off work. They sold their only car to pay the utility bill and were deeply worried about living expenses.

McCoy completed their return and saw that the prior year’s preparer mistakenly ignored a credit for which the couple qualified. She filed an amended return and when the work was done, told the couple they would receive a refund of more than $8,000.

“The father started to cry because now he was going to be able to pay for his newborn’s shots and diapers, buy his son shoes and pay the electric bill,” she recalled.


Senior Brad Brubaker helps a client with her tax return.
Senior Brad Brubaker, another VITA volunteer, knows exactly what McCoy is talking about, but he sees other benefits, too.

“I find the work immensely rewarding. Exhilarating, sometimes,” said Brubaker, a senior Accounting major from Brevard County, Fla. “It’s a practical way of using my accounting skills to tangibly benefit the local community.

“But I’ve also gained many technical insights into the tax profession as a whole. Exposure to real world accounting principles is a strong reminder of how careful I must be in any accounting profession,” he said.

The work has even changed the way he sees people.

“I’ve gained insight into the complexities of various individuals in a given community, and how each person has a unique background that will not fit within a pre-made ‘cookie-cutter’ solution,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons the university is involved in this program, said Stetson’s Dr. Gregory Sapp, an associate professor of Religious Studies who serves on the steering committee of Campaign for Working Families.

“Beyond the monetary value of the work these students are doing, they can now put a face on poverty and have a better understanding of the lives led by the poor and the difficulties they face in trying to escape poverty,” said Sapp.

Many of those who work in the VITA program teach clients to open bank accounts, avoid predatory lenders and put their money to good use, even help them out of substandard housing and into a decent home.

The VITA site was established at Stetson three years ago and operates out of the Lynn Business Center, said Tim Sylvia of the Volusia/Flagler United Way.

“The value of the program is in keeping more money in the pockets of low income families,” said Sylvia. It not only helps clients avoid paying for tax preparation, but assures them they will receive quality service and not be exploited.


Dr. Gregory Sapp, steering committee member
 of Campaign for Working Families.


Stetson is one of numerous VITA local sites operated by the United Way’s Campaign for Working Families, where trained volunteers will help file more than 2,000 tax returns for low to moderate income families. More than 75 returns are expected to be filed at Stetson this year, said Sylvia.

Most clients who come to Stetson, said McCoy, who manages the program at Stetson, are single parent families with two or three children or senior citizens on a fixed income.

Feeling like Santa and helping members of this community aren’t the only reasons McCoy “loves” the VITA program. Too many people, she said, have the idea that business students, and those in business, care more about money and the bottom line than they do their community.

“I feel like I get the chance to break that stereotype through my work with VITA because business knowledge and education are the best ways to break things like the poverty cycle,” she said.

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