When Bates extended its break, seven Bates students seized the opportunity to make a difference in the Lewiston-Auburn community from the comfort of their homes. Their mission: to become IRS-certified volunteer tax preparers and help low-income families complete their taxes.
“Due to COVID-19, this was an unprecedented tax preparation season,” said Anthony Tenneson, Site Coordinator at the Lewiston-Auburn CA$H Coalition. CA$H Maine has a mission statement of “creating assets, savings, and hope,” and works to empower Maine individuals and families to achieve long-term financial stability.
“This season was a huge challenge for veteran preparers and especially for the ‘rookie’ Bates preparers,” he continued. “The Lewiston-Auburn communities needed the service, and Bates students helped fulfill this need.”
Darby Ray, Director of the Harward Center for Community Partnerships, reached out to the Bates student body via email in January 2021 about this volunteer opportunity. Twenty-three students jumped at the chance, expressing their interest immediately to Tenneson. Other commitments, Tenneson said, prevented many of them from completing all of the certification.
Seven students were able to complete the whole certification process and prepare returns: Jaden Witte-Schrock ‘24, Abra Kaplan ‘21, Adam Naddaff Slocum ‘22, Cody Pfeiffer ‘23, Jane Holmes ‘22, Kyung Phil Ko ‘22, and Max Polich ‘21.
Tenneson emphasized that he was “very impressed” with each of them, as they all did their best to finish the IRS certified tax preparer requirements.
Completing the process, after all, was no easy feat.
Each student needed to pass three certification tests, including a rigorous tax law certification, and familiarize themselves with Maine tax income law and a new tax software — a cloud portal called VITA that is used for tax preparation — all of this without any face-to-face training.
Despite the virtual component, Pfeiffer was grateful for this experience.
“To be able to know that I was putting what I had learned in the tax preparation course into practice — that I was helping someone out with their tax returns — was really exciting,” Pfeiffer said.
During the break, he had “tons of time” on his hands, and he found it fulfilling to help others.
“I remember thinking to myself,” Pfeiffer said. “‘What better way is there to spend this time that I have than to become a volunteer tax preparer, to help those that might be struggling during the pandemic?’”
Holmes appreciated the experience as well, because it gave her an opportunity to learn about taxes, which she has been hoping to do for a while.
“I learned a lot more about the way that taxes work in the United States, which is super helpful,” Holmes said. “Especially in regards to tax write offs and other tools that help Americans save money, but that are not easily accessible without training or information.”
Each student had their own reasons for participating in the program. Kaplan, for example, plans to go to law school in the fall. She hopes to go into public interest law in order to help economically disadvantaged individuals. This program seemed like a perfect fit.
“As a student who is oftentimes intimidated by numbers in general, I wanted to step outside my comfort zone,” Kaplan said.
Witte-Schrock had three main reasons for participating in the program. First, he had worked for a certified public accountant in high school and wanted to learn more about the tax process. Second, he understands that taxes are something “we all have to pay for at some point.”
“The biggest reason why I was interested in this program was because I’m from out of state, and I wanted to see a different culture,” Witte-Schrock said. “I wanted to experience Maine. It really came down to engagement with the community and learning about a place that is now my home.”
His involvement in the program, he said, was also about making the next step in life: becoming an adult and learning about taxes and personal finance.
Besides completing tax returns virtually, Witte-Schrock came to the Lewiston Armory on Thursday evenings to assist with scan-and-go and review completed tax returns with taxpayers.
He enjoyed engaging with the community and learning new skills. He said he recommends this opportunity, because it takes some time, but is “very, very rewarding.”
Pfeiffer also highly recommends this opportunity.
“To those who might be more interested in the humanities or are not numbers people, I’d still definitely recommend this opportunity,” Pfeiffer said. “It is extremely practical on the one side of helping surrounding community members as a residential college student and, on the other side, at least you will know more practical knowledge of tax returns.”
Overall, Tenneson felt grateful for the students’ help. He is excited that some of them, like Witte-Schrock, have told him that they plan to volunteer again next year.
“I am very proud of each of the 23 students,” Tenneson said. “Each gave what they could to the program and provided me with a strong sense that the future of our country and world is in good hands.”