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As many Americans are enjoying or socking away refunds from their 2004 taxes, some Lehigh Valley families feel grateful that Lafayette students helped them file their returns.

Dozens of students applied principles learned in their Property and Theft class to the community around them by helping the Lehigh Valley’s working poor prepare their tax forms. As part of the Values and Science/Technology seminar taught by Chawne Kimber, assistant professor of mathematics, students had to complete 12 hours of service-learning to supplement class material.

Michael Canterino ’07 (White Plains, N.Y.), who helped families fill out their returns at the YMCA in Allentown, says the service gave greater meaning to what Kimber taught in the classroom.

“In class, we read a book called The Working Poor by a journalist who wanted to see how the other half lived and what she finds is that the working poor live from paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “It’s one thing to read about people just getting by, but to volunteer at a place like the YMCA and see people like that, it really puts things into perspective.”

Canterino recalls one couple that lived on the husband’s income of $17,000 in 2004. With only one child, the couple got a tax credit and received a $4,000 refund.

“The wife got really excited and started talking about paying off a mortgage and buying a house,” Canterino says. “Reading the book, you only get half the meaning, but meeting and talking to real people — it’s definitely rewarding to be able to help these people out.”

One of the things taught in the course is how the working poor, because of their economic status, are consistently taken advantage of, says mathematics major Thomas Harju ’07 (Richardson, Texas). By simply providing for free what people otherwise would have to pay $200 to $300 for a professional to do, the volunteers witnessed this lesson.

“This is straight out of the book — the working poor have to find ways to save money,” Harju says. “And it’s a big issue for them because they try to make ends meet in whatever way they can. There have been people coming into our tax return help center for several years who have found they’ve saved a lot more money than if they had gone somewhere else.”

Not only did the volunteer work teach the class members about the plights of different economic classes, it gave them a bigger picture of life beyond campus.

Harju says the service-learning has made his Lafayette experience more well-rounded by giving him the opportunity to do some good in the community beyond the boundaries of College Hill.

Canterino adds, “It’s given me a chance to see how people in the surrounding area live. Volunteering is a chance to meet people I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to meet, people who aren’t like me, whether it be a different age, occupation or family situation.”

While the students say that the work preparing taxes won’t have any direct impact on their career plans — Harju is a mathematics major and Spanish minor and Canterino is an English major — they appreciate the value of the interaction it provided.

“It is kind of a culture shock to sit down with a stranger, introduce myself, and tell that person ‘I am going to help you because you don’t know how to do [it],” Harju says. “But learning about the different aspects of all the different people is one of the most valuable things I gained.”

The 19 students in Income Tax Topics, a course taught by Sheila Handy, assistant professor of economics and business, also assisted low-income residents with filing their income taxes.

“My principal reason for having students perform this service is the fact that I understand the need for it, and I believe that it is an excellent way to use the skills they are learning in the Income Tax Topics course,” says Handy, who trained the students.

She was involved with the national program of volunteer income tax assistance for several years prior to joining the Lafayette faculty and believes the experience benefits not just the residents, but the students as well.

“The students are given an opportunity to act in an advisory manner, while at the same time providing a community service,” says Handy. “They derive satisfaction from helping other individuals and learning how to prepare tax returns.”

“My students have learned the necessity of good organizational skills (on the part of the taxpayer clients) and the importance of sharing a skill with the community,” she adds.

Canterino is a photographer, writes for The Lafayette, and is a member of Lafayette Activities Forum. In January, he served an externship at NBC headquarters with Will Wermuth ’98, observing the many components that comprise broadcast news and entertainment. He graduated from Hackly High School.

Harju is a member of the varsity soccer team. He graduated from J.J. Pearce High School.

Categorized in: Academic News