Berkeley students offer free tax service in East Bay

As Tax Day approaches, UC Berkeley student volunteers are fanning out through the East Bay to help people of limited means prepare their returns and maximize their refunds.

The students are part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance DeCal program – VITA being a national public-service organization and DeCal being the Berkeley campus’s slate of student-led, for-credit courses.

Nona Penner and Julie Li

Berkeley VITA volunteers Nona Penner and Judy Li

Last fall some 75 undergraduates – many of them business, economics or statistics majors – enrolled in the popular two-semester VITA DeCal course, which covers subjects like income inequality and poverty along with practical income tax-preparation topics like itemized deductions and earned-income tax credits.

After passing an IRS-sponsored certification exam, Berkeley VITA students put their tax-prep skills to work during tax season at local credit unions and community organizations. (For a taste of their collaboration with one community group, the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, see EBALDC’s Twitter and Facebook posts using #MyVITAStory.)

And about a dozen of the volunteers are in Merced this week, offering assistance to Central Valley residents through a UC Berkeley Public Service Center alternative spring break.

Judy Li, a sophomore majoring in business and economics, is assisting for a second year at Oakland’s Lao Family Community Development Center. She recalls working with a mother of five whose eyes lit up when she learned about deductions and credits to which she was legally entitled and saw the size of her refund. Having grown up in a struggling Asian community in the San Gabriel Valley, Li can relate, she says, to how much a $2,000 refund can mean to a low-income family.

The work is especially gratifying, she adds, when — besides helping people fill out their 2014 tax forms — she can share knowledge that makes clients more tax-savvy.

VITA DeCal co-director Nona Penner – a junior studying business and history who has been involved in VITA since freshman year – notes that by saving clients tax-preparation fees and leaving them with more disposable income, the service helps the local economy as well.

The program typically serves those with annual family incomes below $40,000. To arrange a session, see this list of local centers where VITA DeCal offers tax assistance (click on the “More Information” tab).