Angelo Scoppa, of Mays Landing, is hoping to get a full-time job as an accountant. Until then, he’s getting lots of practice by doing free tax returns at the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site at the Family Success Center in Hammonton.
“It’s a way to get hands-on experience,” said Scoppa, who has an MBA from Richard Stockton College and will finish an accounting degree in May. He is working part time for P.J. Schneider & Co. in Linwood but said the volunteer work gives him even more experience. This is his third tax season as a volunteer.
“What better way to get into accounting than by serving the community?” he said.
The VITA program in South Jersey is coordinated by the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey and the Internal Revenue Service, with a grant from the IRS. All volunteers get training and must pass an exam to become IRS-certified.
Eligible residents must have a household income of less than $52,000 per year; local coordinators said participation has grown every year. Most participants get refunds, said Amanda McGowan, director of Community Initiatives for the United Way.
Last year, 413 Atlantic County residents got free tax returns, and $465,000 was refunded. In Cape May County, 684 residents participated and $586,000 was refunded. In Cumberland County, 940 returns were completed and about $1 million was refunded.
Alice Woods, United Way executive director in Cumberland County, said the organization would like to reach even more people. Residents can do their own taxes for free online, but some don’t have the technological skills or are nervous about doing their own taxes. She said the volunteers can also help make sure residents are getting all of the deductions to which they are entitled.
“It’s part of what we are doing here to help people gain financial stability,” she said. “When people are getting back more than they expected, they are so happy, and they can use that money to pay bills.”
The program could use more volunteers. About 30 work in South Jersey at multiple sites.
Volunteer John Leopold, of Buena Vista Township, retired from teaching marketing at Vineland High School and worked for the tax-preparation service H&R Block. He said he likes to stay active, he likes doing taxes and he especially likes helping people get refunds. Leopold said sometimes people are unaware of all the deductions they can get for things such as child care and education.
“Some people will come in really nervous but then leave smiling,” he said. “People are so appreciative for the help.”
Some volunteers and clients have been participating for several years. Some clients ask for a specific volunteer they’ve worked with before, local United Way VITA coordinater Virginia Nikolaidis said.
The volunteers complete both the federal and state tax return, and focus on people who need only the basic 1040 return. They do not do business returns or returns that are very complex, though they will try to help as many people as they can. A typical return takes about a half-hour to complete.
“We will get a few we have to turn away, but not many,” Leopold said.
In Cape May, the program is coordinated by the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. Director Joan Rowland said many participants are senior citizens. She has about seven volunteers and said they are running out of appointments for this season.
Mary Godleski-Cantin, United Way’s associate director of communications, said the organization still has time to train volunteers, who typically begin as greeters, then work with a more experienced volunteer.
Clients at the Hammonton site said they very much appreciate the help.
Leo Brunozzi, of Buena Vista, said he’s come for help with his taxes the past three or four years. He likes that it’s free, quick and he can get his refund check directly deposited into his bank account.
Single mom Dawn Waterfield, of Hammonton, said she would have a hard time paying someone to do her taxes, so she appreciates being able to save the money and still get professional help. This is her third year having her taxes done through VITA.
The only complaint clients had was that there was some delay in getting an appointment through the 211 information system. Godleski-Cantin said the system got backed up during recent snowstorms when many people were using it, but the centralized system is the best way to get an appointment since there are multiple sites in each county. In Cape May County, residents can call the individual sites.
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