Integrity, good character, nurturing the hearts and minds… and taxes?!?!
By Angelo Ochoa
It’s Eight o’clock…. Do you know where your kids are?
If you were to ask this question to parents of the students in the Academy of Business and Finance at University High School, the answer would be easy. “Yes I do. They are still at school preparing income tax returns for the community.”
This year will mark the 14th year for a tax program that a lot of folks in the Waco community have been taking advantage of for years, many since the beginning. But, this is not your average, ordinary, everyday income tax site for two very important reasons.
- All of the services are provided FREE of charge.
- It is run by the students of the Ron E. Smith Academy of Business and Finance at University High School.
So, here is some background….
In 2004, Ms. Angela Reiher, then assistant principal at A.J. Moore Academy, and Mr. Ron Smith, a teacher in the school’s Academy of Finance, contacted the IRS about opening up a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) Site at the school. The IRS, who provides the tax software and the Site Identification Number for e-filing purposes, offered to help as long as the school could guarantee to prepare at least a hundred returns. The goal of the IRS’s VITA program is to offer free tax help for low to middle income people, persons with disabilities, those who speak limited English, and the elderly. To everyone’s surprise, the students of the Academy of Finance were able to prepare over 300 tax returns the first year! And, what started out as a creative way for students to put into practice what they were learning in the classroom, has only grown larger each year. In fact, in the thirteen years since our doors opened, our students have completed over twenty-two thousand tax returns totaling over thirty-nine million dollars in refunds for the Waco community. What makes this so meaningful is that these, often much needed refunds are directly deposited in local banks and credit unions and are spent right here in the Waco community at local business.
As a teacher, I often try to put myself in the shoes of these students and ask myself if I was the kind of high school kid who would have stayed after school and volunteered until late in the evening preparing taxes for complete strangers. I have never gotten an answer that I liked that wasn’t me lying to myself.
Ruth Rodriguez, a senior, who also volunteers in the Trojan Branch of Educators Credit Union located on the University High School campus has been a part of the tax program since she was a freshman. She has completed over 305 hours of community service and she is the first smile you see when you walk in the door. She says, “My main job here at the tax site is to sign people in and verify identification and social security cards. Probably my favorite part of what I do is getting to meet new people. Most of the people we help are really grateful for the service we provide, and even though I don’t really know them they seem to really want me to do good things with my life. They love to offer advice on what I should and shouldn’t do once I graduate from high school. As a freshman I was afraid to talk to adults, other than teachers or my family, and usually not even them, now I feel confident in answering their questions, explaining their tax returns to them and listening to stories about the struggles of being an adult.”
Shelby Reyes, a senior, who also volunteers at the Trojan Branch of Educators Credit Union and who has over 347 volunteer hours, echoed Ruth’s thoughts, but Shelby’s roots in this program run a little bit deeper. “My sister, Jennifer, also did taxes in this program from 2008 to 2012 when it was still A.J. Moore Academy,” she says. “My sister always enjoyed being in business classes and doing taxes and I can see why. The Academy of Business and Finance has really helped me throughout high school to decide what I want to do with my life. Doing taxes has become a passion for me because I just love helping people. I started doing taxes as a 9th grader. I was scared at first because, honestly, who would think a high school freshman could do someone’s taxes and not mess them up. My teachers, Mr. Ochoa and Mrs. Moore, did a good job preparing us and they were always there to help out and the people getting their taxes done are usually really patient. I stayed as often as I could because I love hearing people’s stories about their successes and failures in life…people love to tell their stories. There are always interesting people that come in and you never know what or who each night might bring. Every year there is this man that comes in with big bamboo sticks and tells all of the kids what a great job we are doing and that we’re all ‘lookin’ stylish.’ Before he leaves he always holds up those big sticks and prays over us and the school. I’m going to miss seeing him every year after I graduate.”
Student opinions about the program all seem to be pretty similar. “I love when people give me advice.” “I love helping out the newer students who might be a little scared.” “I love that people need my help doing something difficult that can impact their lives.” “I’ve learned that people can be very different. Some can be rude and some can be kind and patient and when I grow up I get to decide which of those I want to be.” The one phrase that is typically heard most during tax season is, “What are we eating tonight?” As student volunteers, these kids literally ‘will work for food’. So naturally we have more volunteers on the nights we are eating hot wings than the nights we are having ham sandwiches. We have been very fortunate, in the past, to receive donations from many local restaurants and churches, as well as donations and grants from the community to help feed the kids, but it continues to be a struggle.
Before a student can volunteer at a VITA site, even if they are just holding the door or passing out pencils, they are required to be certified through the IRS. This is not an easy task to complete and ultimately, it is up to them to decide if they want to volunteer. It is not a requirement and their grade is not affected by it. For them, the reward is the activity itself. The students know that if they were not here to help, people might have to pay someone for this service. They are at this great place between childhood and adulthood where they have not yet started to become motivated by their own economic self-interests. For the kids in this Academy, we have to remind them that actions always speak louder than words, especially those actions that honor themselves, their families, their school, and their community.
As a teacher, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a timid freshman, scared of the world, doing their first tax return for a complete stranger grow into a senior, beaming with confidence, and explaining to a customer the difference between standard and itemized deductions.
It is really impossible to describe just how beneficial this is to the students at University High School. From a very young age we place a lot of expectations on students with their only rewards being good grades and an assurance from an adult that, “it’s important to your future.” This doesn’t always work, and in my experience, sometimes rewards can often produce less of the very things we are trying to encourage. I have noticed that, while they are volunteering, the students get to experience something they do not often get every day… gratitude. Overwhelming gratitude from the people they are helping. It is not often a high school student gets to hear, “Thank you, thank you for being here and helping me with this. You have no idea how much this means to us.” Our students get to hear it many times a night.
I am not sure exactly what it is that keeps these students excited about staying and doing taxes in the evenings. Whatever it is, their motivation comes from somewhere deep within. From a part of themselves that has a desire to serve others and finds joy in doing that work. It is not just about athletics and academics. It is about integrity, building good character, and nurturing the hearts and minds of students that want to go out into the world and change it for the better.
If you would like more information about our program, please visit www.uhstaxes.com.
Angelo Ochoa teaches Financial Analysis, Accounting 1, and Income Tax Accounting for the Ron E. Smith Academy of Finance at University High School. He was formally with Central National Bank before taking the opportunity to teach business courses at A.J. Moore Academy. He is in his 8th year with Waco ISD and serves as the Site Coordinator for the school’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site.