Forget Turbo Tax. Get your income taxes done for free by students at CAST Tech High School.
Since January, dozens of students at the Centers for Applied Science and Technology Network’s downtown technology campus have helped people file income tax returns every Tuesday and Thursday evening. The students are IRS-certified to process tax returns through the agency’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA).
Since 2019, students have processed more than 300 returns and completed 151 so far this year, said Lillian Bernal, VITA site coordinator. The goal is to process 200 returns this year.
While some people may have reservations about teens processing their taxes, Bernal said the students endure a five-week training course through the Internal Revenue Service to become certified. She also oversees their work and reviews every return before it is filed.
“They’re just as qualified as H&R Block,” she said. “If anything, they ask more questions so we can get the most return for the taxpayer.”
For the students, earning their VITA certifications and helping people in their community file their taxes provides them with a sense of purpose and pride.
“What really drew me to this program is just the experience it offers and really getting to help the community,” said Jonah Tonick, a freshman at CAST Tech. “We’re doing work for free that people would actually pay for, and we do it as equal as them. It’s just a really good opportunity for the community and for students to get this experience.”
Ayden House, also a freshman, said he got involved with the VITA program so he could try something new. Usually, he just focuses on his grades, but he wanted to gain experience outside of his classes.
“Honestly, I thought it was going to be originally exciting, and I was not let down,” he said.
In addition to developing their tax preparation and customer service skills, the students also got to know each other better and meet new people over the past few months.
Sophomore Keliha Henson heard about VITA in his entrepreneurship class and decided to join so he could get his certification and help people in the community, while gaining experience in the field he plans to study in college: finance.
“I was just looking around for extracurricular activities around the school, but none of them piqued my interest,” he said. “But then I saw the benefits of VITA.”
Leticia Velazquez came by CAST Tech on Thursday to have her taxes filed after hearing about the service on the news. Velazquez usually goes to the Ella Austin Community Center to do her taxes through the VITA program there, but she decided to try CAST Tech because her granddaughter, Scarlet, attends the school.
“I’m glad the kids are learning this,” she said. “It’s a good thing.”
While Velazquez had some initial reservations about teens doing her taxes, she said the students are doing this because they want to and they should know how to file taxes at their age. It’s something she never learned to do.
“Kids are really, really smart,” she said. “I think we can hold them back.”
CAST Tech will be open again April 12 and 14 from 4:30-7:30 p.m. for people with incomes under $65,000 who want to get their taxes done for free. The deadline to file taxes is April 18.