Few things are certain in life. Paying taxes is one of those things.
Each year, as Americans work to file their taxes by the mid-April deadline, many low-to-moderate income people, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and those with limited English-speaking skills turn to volunteer-based government programs to make sure they file on time and correctly.
This year, a group of student volunteers, Professor Danshera Cords, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, and United Way of the Greater Capital Region are coming together to provide assistance to people in the Capital Region through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Through this IRS-sponsored program, certified volunteers help millions of taxpayers prepare and file their taxes for free at thousands of sites nationwide.
Jared Scali ’23 and Keith Pelcher ’23 are leading the student volunteer portion and so far, they’ve helped dozens of Capital Region residents prepare their tax returns.
“There’s absolutely a need for it, we had interest before we even had things set up,” Pelcher said. “Taxes can be complicated. People don’t always know what they have access to. And for people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, work long hours, or just don’t have a lot of options to get their taxes done, it’s a great service. It’s been very rewarding to help.”
Students who participate in VITA not only gain valuable knowledge on the tax system and preparation, but for law students, it is a unique chance to interact with the community and practice client-based skills. All volunteers complete a training program certified by the IRS.
Each Friday, the students and a representative from Catholic Charities assist people with their returns and provide information and assistance every step of the way.
“Generally, the individuals we serve are elderly folks, students, young parents, and immigrants. It's a really good program that allows a lot of people to file their taxes properly,” Scali said.
Scali’s interest in tax law began while he was an undergraduate studying policy at the University at Albany.
“I learned that tax is one of the most policy-dense law classes that you'll take in school because there's not much case law. It's mostly statutes and code,” he said. “So, this program is a great way for me to gain more experience in tax and have the opportunity to prepare people’s taxes. As a law student, there aren’t many opportunities to do that.”
“I wanted to help people. I didn’t really think about how much people appreciate what VITA does until I started participating. Taxes can be really stressful. Having the opportunity to come in, have professionals look at their information, and submit it is really helpful for a lot of people. Sometimes, we’re even able to get them a bigger return than they anticipated.”
All the skills learned through his work with VITA are also adding to Scali’s toolkit for his legal career.
“A lot of what lawyers do is talking to people who don't understand law, talking to people who might be very scared, very nervous, and very emotional. Taxes in a way are similar to that because it's an intimate conversation. You're sitting down with a stranger, who's looking at your W-2 and your social security forms and asking oftentimes very personal questions,” he said. “I think the VITA program is helping myself and the other volunteers develop those skills.”
Pelcher, who has an accounting degree from SUNY Brockport, saw VITA as a way to use the skills he came into law school with to provide help for the community. During his undergraduate studies, he worked at a VITA site in Rochester. After his time at Brockport, he worked as a production accountant on television shows in New York City.
“I’ve done a lot of accounting and through all of it, numbers seem to tell a story. This has been a great way to use the skillset I already have to continue to help people,” he said.
“VITA and Tax Counseling for the Elderly are the only free, live tax preparation available to low- and middle-income taxpayers, providing an essential community service. All the volunteers are fully trained and certified,” Cords said. “I think participating in VITA helps students learn how to work through real-world problems methodically. For law students, it’s also a great opportunity to learn how to engage with clients in ways and on a scale that is hard to do before you actually enter the practice of law. The client counseling component is invaluable for them in the future.”
Capital Region residents who would like to make an appointment can call 2-1-1 or text their zip code to 898-211 to be matched with an available site.