The first time he helped someone to prepare tax forms, he was nervous. He felt uncomfortable knowing that if he did not do it right, he could get in trouble, but once the first customer was satisfied the others came a lot easier. After that, he felt a lot more confident and joyful for being a part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program at CSUN and for helping people do the right thing.
Juan Reynoso, 22, senior management major, joined the program three years ago when his curiosity about tax preparation led him to become an active member in his community through VITA.
“At first I just wanted to know how to do taxes for my own knowledge,” Reynoso said. “But once I was inside of the program it made me want to do it again and again because it feels good to go out to the community and help someone.”
Reynoso is now part of a nationwide program, made up of student volunteers, that helps the elderly, low-income, non-English speaking people and single students to prepare their taxes for free. Reynoso and his group of about 250 volunteers have operated in the San Fernando Valley since 1971 when CSUN became a pioneer in leading such programs in the U.S.
Since VITA started at CSUN, one of the goals of the program has been to make a connection between the university and the diverse community in the area, serving people who make under $50,000 and that come from different backgrounds. Along with the training, participating students get the opportunity to network, receive experience and grow in their personal skills. The volunteers are expected to attend 24-hour training during the winter semester that introduces them to the skills needed for their duties, and to volunteer their time across 20 sites from January to April 16.
Besides getting hands on experience and credit for volunteering in VITA, you also get a chance to interact with people in different ways, said Reynoso.
“(People) start talking to you about their families and their problems,” said Reynoso. “Then you start socializing too, so they don’t feel like they are in an office where they are strangers.”
Reynoso, who first started as a preparer and now is an administrator of the program, said helping non-English speakers is a self-gratifying experience because they appreciate getting help in their native language.
“It is interesting to see how their whole body expression changes when they find out that I speak Spanish,” said Reynoso.
Even though VITA requires a big part of the day for a full-time student like Reynoso, he said the most rewarding experience is the satisfaction of aiding the poor and helpless.
“We want them to feel as comfortable as they can,” Reynoso said. “We try to help them on whatever we can by doing their taxes.”
Jason Kim, 25, senior finance major at CSUN, said he wanted to return some of his time to the community because CSUN has given him so many opportunities.
Kim, who has been in the program for two years, said his language skills have become handy in many situations. Kim, who is fluent in Korean, Spanish and English, said that it is essential to aid low-resource families because they do not get the same opportunities that the wealthy do.
“The most rewarding experience is seeing the smile on their faces, and telling them that they are going to receive $3000.” Kim said. “That’s a lot of money for people that don’t make a lot of money.”
According to Kim, by assisting people in his community he gets a chance to put to use the skills he has learned in his career and it also provides him with real life experience.
“When you are dealing with people, you need to realize that you are there to help them,” said Kim, who is an administrator at VITA. “You want to assist them in every possible way.”
VITA is not only open to business or accounting major students, but also to students from different majors who want to give back to the community, said Kim.
“It’s a rewarding experience because you are helping people that need it,” he said.
Donna Watkins, VITA program coordinator at CSUN, said that VITA was created to fulfill a need in the community.
“We have many people who can’t afford to get the taxes done by a professional,” Watkins said.
Watkins said that tax preparers like H’R block charge around $100 per W-2 form, and a lot of their clients have to work two jobs just to bring food to their table.
“If you have a minimum wage job, you can’t even afford to go to H’R block,” Watkins said.
Watkins said that this is why a lot of people risk themselves and try to fill out their tax return forms themselves hoping that they did it correctly, or even they may not file at all.
“We meet that need by providing another option to file,” Watkins said. “You can come to our site with someone that has been trained to do it for free.”
Watkins, who has been involved with VITA since 1998, said that the turn out is satisfactory, with historical minimum of 1000 people and a total of about 1300 people in 2006.
She said this is her third tax season as a director of the program, but she will never forget her experience at CSUN as a student, a preparer, and coordinator in the VITA program, which motivated her to return to volunteer her time now as CSUN alumni.
“I would never forget the first person I helped,” Watkins said. “It was this old lady who had just lost her husband and it made me feel so good to be able to offer her some kind of comfort.”
VITA is a program that could motivate other members of the community to do volunteering work for different organizations.
“I like to call the VITA program a win-win,” said Watkins. “Because the students win, the community wins and the university wins.”
Watkins encouraged all students from the different majors to take advantage of the VITA program, so they can learn to do taxes and to participate actively in the community.
“You don’t only learn to prepare taxes,” said Watkins. “You also learn to appreciate the feeling of a smile.”
She said that the VITA program is a big family in which everybody learns to interact and help others.
“VITA is like a big family and we want other students to be part of it,” she said.
For Reynoso the VITA program is like his second house and he knows that all the volunteers, administrators, coordinators and the director are people that he can count on.