For most students, the month of March represents Spring Break in all its glory: Relaxing on sandy beaches, going to crowded parties, or binge eating in front of the television at home. The lure of fun-in-the-sun even prompts some students to check out of school early, leaving town as soon as the pre-Spring Break weekend hits.
But for the students volunteering with HOPE Public Interest Resource Center for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, the month of March is part of tax season. So, on the first day of Spring Break vacation, they headed up to Allapattah, Florida – a diverse part of Miami comprised mostly of residents from all over the Caribbean, Central America, and Latin America – to help its low-income residents prepare taxes for free.
"Out of all the activities I do at [Miami] Law, I've seen the best volunteer turn-out for VITA," 2L William Keenan stated. Keenan is a project leader for the program, along with fellow 2L Megan Ferris.
The program provides free tax preparation services in 3 different languages: English, Spanish, and Creole. John Ainsworth II, a 2L, serves as a Spanish translator for the program. "It's just really interesting to help people with their taxes, and you learn things that can help you in your own preparation," Ainsworth said.
The students saw a steady flow of clients, including Roland Levy, a 47-year-old lifelong Miami resident. "I would normally have to pay to get my taxes done," Levy said. "This is a great service, and I'm grateful these students are helping out the community."
The VITA site is located at a Goodwill Industries International center, complete with American flags adorning the entrance and homemade lemon cookies for student volunteers. 1Ls Rick Najjar, Shawn Fandel, and Richard Cabrera were joined by undergraduate student Lisaandra Ortiz in handling clients and preparing documents.
All of the volunteers were trained beforehand, and passed an IRS exam on basic regulations and tax preparation skills before they were allowed to help taxpayers.
"My Spanish has improved a lot since I began canvassing and doing tax preparation," 1L Shayla Waldon said. "[The VITA program] is a great way to practice another language."
The volunteers stated that they are currently focusing on expanding their outreach to law students and UNICCO, a facility maintenance service that provides the janitorial employees for the School of Law.
For anyone interested in receiving tax preparation services from VITA, please contact Myles Cochran in the HOPE office at firstname.lastname@example.org.