Indiana University Kokomo

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KOKOMO, Ind. – Stephenie McGee plans a career preparing taxes. As an accounting major at Indiana University Kokomo, she is getting real-life experience as she volunteers to help low-income Howard County residents file their taxes.sife_tax_help_IMG_0656A SIFE student helps to prepare taxes at the United Way

McGee and Heather Pickens, both members of IU Kokomo's Students in Free Enterprise (S.I.F.E.) organization, work at least one day weekly during tax season, helping people fill out their taxes online and e-file them. There is no charge for the program, funded through the United Way.

McGee said the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program means those they help can use all of their refund to pay bills or take care of other necessary expenses.

"They don't have to pay $50 to $70 for someone to do their taxes. For someone with limited income, getting that extra money back through a refund can make a difference," she said. "It feels good to be able to help someone using the skills I've learned as a business student at IU Kokomo."

Pickens volunteered 30 hours for this same program in 2011, and she hopes to give at least that many hours again this year.

"You get a good feeling about helping people, and you get real-world experience," McGee said. "This will be great to have on my résumé after I graduate when I am looking for an accounting job."

Jason VanAlstine, assistant professor of economics and S.I.F.E. sponsor, arranged for students to complete a 20-hour certification class through the Internal Revenue Service to become certified tax preparers. He said the volunteer program is an opportunity for them not only to serve their community, but also to gain valuable job experience while still in college.

"Tax preparation is one of the career options available to a business student, and this teaches that job in a hands-on way you can't gain in the classroom," VanAlstine said. "It's not too often there's such a clear tie between helping the community and learning career skills."

Pam Goodman, United Way financial stability coordinator, said volunteers, including IU Kokomo students, helped 231 families file their taxes for free in 2011. She hopes to double that number in 2012. The tax preparation service is available to people with income of less than $50,000 per year, and those helped receive their refunds within five to seven days.

She said volunteers like the IU Kokomo students are what make it possible for the service to be offered free. The students also benefit, she added.

"It's been a great experience for them and it's been great for us. It's a good résumé builder," Goodman said. "We had a girl last year who used us as a reference to get a job. They are making a difference in the community."

Volunteers are available by appointment only four days per week at the United Way of Howard County office, 210 W. Walnut St. To make an appointment, call Goodman at 2-1-1.

McGee is glad she could learn and give back at the same time.

"I'm benefitting from helping people, and I'm learning all kinds of new things."

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.