Written by Mary McCusker
Tax season. For many, it is a headache to face the annual ritual of compiling forms, digging out receipts, plodding through a tax software program or scheduling an appointment with a tax preparer.
But for some residents of Southern New Jersey — individuals and families with low incomes, the disabled, the elderly, the undocumented, and those grappling with English — filing taxes proves to be an even greater challenge. Many of these families struggle to find the money to pay for tax services while already facing difficulty paying for necessities such as food and housing.
Responding to this need for the past six years has been Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, through its free tax filing services. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax help to people who face these barriers, making the process affordable and less overwhelming. In addition, Catholic Charities’ financial coach provides free counseling for those interested in better managing their household budget going forward.
For the past three months, a group of 10 juniors and seniors from Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, Pennsauken, have volunteered their Saturday mornings and afternoons to help file tax returns at Catholic Charities’ Camden office. For them, providing this service and dedicating their time was more than simply fulfilling volunteer hours for course requirements.
Phillip Sobocinski, a senior at Bishop Eustace who will be studying economics at Princeton University in September, has been a volunteer tax preparer for the past two years. “This has been a really eye-opening experience all around. It was more than learning about taxes. It provided an opportunity to encounter and interact with other people in a meaningful way,” he said. “We all go to an affluent high school just a mile away from here. But rarely do we encounter people who have trouble paying rent or providing basic necessities for their families.”
Added another student volunteer, “It’s striking to see the challenges that people face. [A client] whose taxes I helped file earlier had two W-2s. So she’s working two jobs, caring for her child who is disabled, and also taking care of her mother. The bills really add up, especially when it comes to medical expenses. I can’t imagine being in such a difficult situation.”
In addition to gaining insight into the lives of those who live in poverty, another valuable lesson was learned.
Sobocinski further reflected, “This really shows how much of a need there is for charitable organizations like Catholic Charities to provide these services. Saving money on the cost of tax preparation means that these clients will have money that can go toward basic necessities they might not otherwise be able to afford.”
As the students prepared to wrap up their work on April 14, the last Saturday before Tax Day, one of the clients — a veteran who had availed himself of the Catholic Charities’ tax service — addressed the students.
“Excuse me, but there’s something I have to say,” he said. “I’ve been watching all of you this afternoon, and I’m just blown away. You all are so young, but I would never know it. The way you treat the people who come in here… you’re warm, and you’re smart, and you bring joy to the people you work with. And I will pray for you as you all move on to college.”
Michel Acevedo, one of the Catholic Charities’ staff who oversees the tax program, beamed as she spoke about the students.
“These Bishop Eustace students have been a blessing, and they’re certainly a tribute to their school and their families. Whatever career path each ultimately takes, they will no doubt bring to it the same professionalism and empathy as they have shown our clients over these past three months,” she said.