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Excellence in Community Service: Building a Successful VITA Program


Vol. 39 No. 5
By Tonnya Kennedy Kohn

For the fifth year in a row, Barry University’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law is the recipient of the ABA Law Student Division Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Site Award.
Program adviser Professor Patrick Tolan attributes university and student commitment to the program’s strength.

“Commitment to the program from the top down is critical, as is the ability to promote continuity through volunteers who return as site coordinators to perform the student leadership roles,” says Tolan. He notes that two Barry tax professors also are involved in VITA helping to “stabilize and provide continuity to the program.”

Barry’s VITA program, which began in 2005, started with an inquiry from just one student. “Shortly after I arrived at Barry, a student approached me who was interested in starting the VITA program. I had several years of previous experience with VITA while I was in the military and thought it would be a great way for our students to give back to the local community while learning valuable skills and earning pro bono hours,” recalls Tolan. “Our founding student site coordinator, Andy Cziotka, obtained information on student-run VITA programs from the ABA Law Student Division, and I contacted the IRS and coordinated with our dean and administration to get the process started to set up a site.”

The rest is history.

In that first year, Barry’s VITA program filed about 90 electronic returns for clients; the program now completes about 500 mostly electronically filed returns annually. The program predominantly serves families in the local community. Students, staff, and other members of the Barry University community also use the free VITA services.

Student commitment includes many repeat volunteers who later become site coordinators and 60 to 75 student tax preparers.

Christine Barry , a third-year student and volunteer who is vice president of VITA, was a tax professional before attending law school. “When I found out that Barry had a VITA program, I immediately volunteered,” says Barry, who is also the Law School Division’s 5th Circuit Lt. Governor for VITA. “I felt it was a great way to use my talents to assist the surrounding low- to moderate-income community.”

Barry’s VITA program has opened a permanent satellite location at Barry University’s Adult and Continuing Education Center, which is located about five miles from the law school. The VITA program also hosts events in low-income communities, at the VA medical center, a local women’s crisis shelter, and the coalition for the homeless. This year, the program is partnering with AARP and the Walt Disney World Resort to open a Disney site to provide VITA services to Disney cast members. The program’s two-year transition to the Taxwise online format has allowed its preparers to complete returns anywhere there is Internet access.

Ryan Moody, a third-year Barry student and president of VITA, believes VITA’s program is an asset to the community. “In the community where Barry is located, we have a high minority and elderly population,” he says recounting the story of an elderly couple who were charged $400 each for the same service that Barry provided for free. “Taking this into consideration it is easy to see exactly how valuable VITA is to our community. . . . When our customers leave our sites, they can have peace of mind to know that they have received a valuable service for free from an IRS-sponsored VITA program.”

Barry’s growth hinges on being able to continue attracting clients. “Our most important factors for increased demand derive from expanded interpreter services for Spanish-speaking and ESL clients and ramped-up publicity efforts throughout our local community,” says Tolan, noting the program advertises its services via church bulletins, flyers, postcards, cooperation with its local Prosperity Coalition, and free publicity through the United Way 2-1-1 program and various TV and radio spots. The VITA program was also featured in a section targeted toward the Hispanic community in a local newspaper and on Spanish-speaking radio stations. “Word of mouth has also been important as repeat customers get the word out to their neighbors.”

More information on VITA

—Tonnya Kennedy Kohn, a third-year student at the University of South Carolina School of Law, is Student Lawyer’s student editor.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.