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Students crunch numbers for neighbors

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Jesse Sworden

Few dates strike as much fear into the hearts of the taxpaying public as April 15 – the deadline for filing tax returns.

Mercyhurst University junior Jesse Sworden and Scott Lewandowski, a second-year student at Mercyhurst North East, are hoping to make that day easier for some Erie County residents.

Sworden and Lewandoski are participants in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, administered through United Way Erie FREE Taxes. Through the program, IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation to low-income residents at several sites in Erie County.

“They’re pretty basic tax returns,” said Sworden, an accounting major. “The people bring in their Social Security cards and their W2s and we ask them questions to help them through the process.”

To become certified by the IRS, Sworden and Lewandoski completed an online course and software training in a computer program that assists them in filling out the forms.

Sworden heard about the volunteer program when a representative from the United Way visited her tax accounting class. Sworden, a three-year water polo athlete from Napoleon, Ohio, thought it sounded like a good opportunity to get involved in the community and see more of Erie. Though most people probably recoil at the prospect of crunching numbers and filling out forms, Sworden embraces it.

“It’s my favorite part of accounting,” she said. “Most people think it’s really boring and grueling work, but I love the concepts involved.”

She spends four hours every Monday volunteering at the Booker T. Washington Center in Erie, time she said goes by quickly. A quality reviewer checks the returns and the computer program they use handles most of the computations, so mistakes aren’t a big worry.

And the people she works with are certainly grateful.

“I had a lady come in recently and she said, ‘I just don’t understand this,’” Sworden said. “The paperwork looks confusing, and they’re all so happy to have someone read the confusing forms and figure it out for them.”

The experience of working on tax prep in a real-world environment has been valuable, and she said it’s definitely something she’d do again.

“This has been a good opportunity to learn how to relate to people in a formal setting,” Sworden said. “That’s an important side to learning that you don’t necessarily learn in the classroom.”

Lewandoski decided to volunteer with the VITA program after hearing about it in Randy Rinke’s tax accounting class at North East.

“I did taxes last year for my family, and I wanted to try this out,” he said. “Service learning is a part of a lot of our classes at North East, and students like to help out the community through food drives and other activities. This is a different way of doing that.”

In addition to balancing work and school, the 29-year-old business administration-accounting student volunteers a few hours each week at the 4 NINE Thrift Store in North East.

“I’ve had pretty easy returns to deal with so far, nothing too complicated,” he said. “My tax accounting course definitely prepared me to do this. “It’s been satisfying to learn this stuff in class and then apply it in real life.”

Tax accounting is a valuable skill to have, and Lewandoski is getting plenty of practice, good experience as he looks to continue his education at Mercyhurst University in the future. In the meantime, he’s a valuable resource for family and friends during tax season.

To learn more about the United Way Erie FREE Taxes program, visit  www.unitedwayerie.org/ErieFreeTaxes. More information about the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program can be found at www.irs.gov