Ryan Warm spends his Tuesdays voluntarily preparing tax returns for his community— after school gets out.
Warm, 15, is one of 87 students in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at F.W. Buchholz High School.
VITA is an “IRS initiative designed to promote and support free tax preparation service for the underserved,” according to the IRS website.
This year, the United Way of North Central Florida partnered with F. W. Buchholz to certify the school’s Academy of Finance students to prepare tax returns. The school is one of 12 VITA sites in North Central Florida, and it is the first high school in the area to have students in the program.
Debbie Mason, the president and CEO of United Way of North Central Florida, said all Buchholz students went through the same tax-prep certification process as anyone else.
Jennifer Stojkovic, a member of the United Way of North Central community impact team, focuses on health and income issues. She said students began working toward their IRS certification at the start of tax season in January.
Though the course takes about 12 hours, the students received their training over a three-month period by integrating the program into their regular curriculum, she said.
Stojkovic oversees the program. As of April 2, students have prepared 40 tax returns.
Certified students stay after school on Tuesdays from 5 to 8 p.m. to prepare taxes for people with low-to-moderate income for free. VITA is available to those making $52,000 or less per year.
Stojkovic said this amount is more of a target than a limit because they never turn anyone away.
Michele Brothers, the director of Buchholz’s Academy of Finance, said tax return preparation was already part of the curriculum. However, students are now able to utilize their skills on a wider scale.
“One night, no lie, we had three people here having their taxes done, and I just wanted to know how much they paid last year,” Brothers said. “On average, they paid over $300 to have their tax returns done.”
Warm said he appreciates the opportunity. Despite being intimidated at first, Warm said having the certification alleviates some of his stress. He said it is comforting to know he will be able to do his own taxes in the future.
Jared Taber, the assistant principal of curriculum at Buchholz, said he believes the program gives students confidence.
“I think it means something to a high school student when you have somebody who’s considerably older than you are, and they’re coming to you with their financial information and trusting you to make decisions for them,” Taber said.
Behnaz Pat, a community member who benefitted from the program, said the students discovered she was about $900 off in her 2013 tax return.
“It was nice to see people at such a young age that are independent and can take care of this,” Pat said.
The students will prepare tax returns through the April 15 deadline.
In addition to the Buchholz location, Stojkovic said the United Way of North Central Florida Gainesville office will also serve as a free tax return preparation location on April 15 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“Some of them have come just one night, and they’re like, ‘Can we come another night, Ms. Brothers? That was fun,’” Brothers said.