The University of Montana kicked off the tax season last Saturday, as finance students assisted 88 Missoula residents in filing their taxes, for free.

Over 25 years ago UM's finance program paired with the IRS to bring a free tax filing service to the University of Montana through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program. The University's VITA program, made up of about 40 volunteers, offers free tax filing to members of the community with a yearly income of $50,000 or less.

Ryan Hystad, a second year VITA volunteer and Master's of Accountancy student, found fulfilment through the program.

“I signed up thinking ‘volunteering and income tax on my Saturdays?'" he said. "But once I did it I just had a lot of fun.”   

Hystad, who is now serving as a coordinator for the program, said he understands people’s need to find an affordable yet reliable way to do taxes.  

“I’ve been in situations where I am just scrounging for change in my couch and I’m barely making rent,” Hystad said. “I know saving someone even just a 100 bucks or something is just huge."

Kent Swift, a UM tax professor, said students who plan to volunteer with VITA come into tax season prepared, having taken classes and IRS standard exams. 

Swift said the VITA program at UM is very sophisticated because of the training students receive, along with the dedication Clem Lockman, a certified public accountant who runs the program.

“Our program is kind of a model program in the US, because Clem sets such a high standard,” Swift said.

Ashlee Wehage, a VITA volunteer, said she is nervous for her first day on the job this weekend, but knows she is in good hands with Lockman.  

“When you get an answer wrong on a test it’s like oops you do better next time, but this time its real people’s taxes,” she said.  “But, it’s reassuring that the first Saturday you volunteer you have two people review the return you do. Clem, if you have any questions at all, always helps you out.”

VITA has continued to grow at UM, with about a million dollars in returns going into the community in each year, Swift said.

“It benefits everyone," he said. "The students benefit because they get some practical experience doing what they may do when they graduate, and the community gets this free service.”

Volunteers must work 10 hours, but most do much more than that.  

Hystad said he was very impressed with the volunteers last Saturday, as this was their first true experience.

"In the morning everyone had his deer in the headlights look, and by 1:30 they've asked so many questions and learned so much already that they are doing returns by themselves," Hystad said. 

Hystad said VITA also does other work within the community. One way in which VITA gets involved is by volunteering with a group home of teenage mothers to teach them things to be aware of, what to keep for records and other basic tax knowledge. 

VITA will continue to run tax services every Saturday until March 8, with additional hours for international student tax help, a new service offered by the program. Customers are taken on a first come first serve basis from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in room 209 of UM’s Gallagher Business Building.


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