St. John’s Students Serve and Learn through Tax-Preparation Program for Needy

inset of female Tax Volunteer in 2023

From Left to Right: Dr. Eunhye Choi, Assistant Professor of Special Education; Dr. John Spiridakis, Professor and Chair, Department of Education Specialties; Dr. Joshua Jessel (conference speaker on autism); Debora Thivierge, BCBA (conference speaker on autism); Dr. Ishita Khemka, Associate Professor and Coordinator of Special Education, and Department Graduate Assistant, Jinquan Deng.

April 15, 2024

St. John’s University students are continuing the institution’s tradition of participation in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which offers free tax preparation to low-income, disabled, and limited English-speaking taxpayers.

For the past 16 years, St. John’s students have partnered with the Food Bank For New York City to provide this unique and transformative service-learning experience. In the program, student-volunteers help taxpayers file their returns; taxpayers then can use their refunds and preparation savings to purchase food and other necessities.

Under the direction of Nina T. Dorata, C.P.A., Ph.D., Professor, Department of Accountancy, St. John’s filers have returned close to $21 million to needy taxpayers. The University partnered with the Food Bank For New York City in 2009, expanding the program’s reach beyond the Queens, NY, campus.

The University’s 40-plus volunteers, who come from several of the University’s Schools and Colleges, including The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, had to pass an IRS certification test and undergo tax-preparation training. Most of the volunteers work remotely.

“Programs like these are important because they provide an opportunity to give back to the community,” said Tobin College Finance major Lena Elwafi. “As a university student, you might not have the time to go out and volunteer at a different site, but this being available on campus allows us to do that and to stay connected.”

Aligned with the University’s Vincentian mission, the VITA Program features reflective learning to enhance the students’ classroom experience.

VITA programs have been in place for more than 50 years. In almost all circumstances, taxpayers must make $64,000 or less to qualify. Many VITA clients rely on the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax break for low- and moderate-income families, to fund living expenses.

The Food Bank says its tax-assistance program has saved filers more than $210 million in tax preparation fees and returned more than $1.4 billion to New Yorkers over the past 22 years. In 2023, IRS-certified volunteers associated with the Food Bank prepared more than 19,800 returns, producing more than $28 million in refunds for New Yorkers. 

For many filers who use the VITA service, a tax refund is the biggest single sum they will receive all year and helps them pay for food and housing expenses.    

“The Food Bank knows the importance of partners like St. John’s in helping us get food-insecure New Yorkers the vital tax credits and refunds they deserve,” said Zac Hall, Senior Vice President of Programs at the Food Bank For New York City. “In addition to producing more than $21 million in refunds for low-income filers, St. John’s students have helped low-income households save on the retail cost of a for-profit company preparing their returns. The students who volunteer also build a lifetime skill they can take into the workforce and leverage it to improve their finances.”

As many as 2,000 area taxpayers are expected to reach out to St. John’s volunteers before the filing season ends on April 15.

“For the past 15 years, it has truly been a remarkable partnership with the Food Bank,” Dr. Dorata said. “Our students gain valuable professional experience, skills, and knowledge through a program that aligns closely with the University’s mission and Vincentian heritage.”

Watch a video highlighting this collaboration.