Every year during tax time, Lakeland College accounting students power the local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which provides free tax return service for lower-income citizens.
"VITA is a wonderful thing," says Lakeland College graduate Brittney Mauk, who completed her degree in accounting last December and now works for Schenck Business Solutions. "Not only did it give me hands-on experience; it also connects Lakeland College students to the community. It's such a great feeling to see the joy in people's faces and hear them say, 'Thank you so much!'"
The Sheboygan VITA program, sponsored by Guaranty Bank and Schenck SC, takes place one night a week from 5-9 p.m. and on Saturday from 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Sheboygan Salvation Army. For participating Lakeland College students, the volunteer work is linked to their Federal Income Tax 2 class.
Brett Killion, in his third year as Lakeland's assistant professor of accounting, said his students – with help from Lakeshore Technical College students – handled 766 state returns and 665 federal returns last spring. The average federal return yielded $1,356 and the average Sheboygan VITA state refund was $540.
In its first nine years, Lakeland's program has collected more than $9 million in tax refunds for low income earners in the area.
"You're dealing with live emotions," says Lakeland senior Tara Guell, who will graduate with her accounting degree in May and who works with VITA. "Happy, sad, angry, confused … I can relate to the people coming in for help. As a single mother I once struggled with some of the things they're going through. It feels good when we can help."
Lower-income citizens bring in their paperwork and conduct a short interview with the accounting student assigned to the return. There are 10 computers set up in the Salvation Army for the Lakeland students to use. Most returns take between an hour and an hour-and-a-half. The returns are then reviewed by the more experienced students and tax practitioners. After that, the paperwork is compiled. Mauk says she has completed anywhere from one to five returns per shift.
"There are people out there who are struggling," says Killion. "We provide that free service and hopefully put dollars in their pockets."
Citizens who receive money aren't the only ones with a sense of reward. "We actually have alums contact me and volunteer to help, even after they graduate," says Killion.