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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, April 4, 2003

Student tax assistants find rewards go beyond refunds

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Accounting professor Wayne Tanna, second from right, and Beth Ruze, right, a volunteer with Volunteer Legal Services, consult with Sundarette Parker, left and daughter Hokulani De Gruy on their state income taxes.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

When Terri Johnson finishes the tax paperwork at a homeless shelter, sometimes she'll look up into a face streaked with tears.

Those tears of relief — or disbelief — are the touching reactions Johnson gets regularly as she and a team of other college students from accounting professor Wayne Tanna's classes visit shelters around the island as part of their commitment to community outreach.

"One young woman told me her refund was going to be enough so she could get out of the shelter she was living in with her children and she'd be able to find an apartment," said Johnson, a student at the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu. "She had a baby and a 3-year-old, and was about 24."

For several years students from Tanna's senior accounting classes at both Chaminade University of Honolulu and UH-West O'ahu have been helping out with taxes for people who often miss out on refunds that could make a major difference in their lives. They help dozens of clients each year.

"The idea was targeting single parents because they're the ones who really needed it most," said Tanna, who is also an attorney and started the outreach with his students as part of a program initiated by the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar Association.

"If they can come up with a substantial hunk of money, they can get into state housing projects."

For many years before that Tanna was doing the same thing as part of the Internal Revenue Service Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program designed to help disabled, low-income, senior citizens and non-English-speaking taxpayers receive free tax help.

"What he does is give his students an opportunity to see the value of community service and learn, firsthand, that they can make a difference," said Pearl Yamashiro, program manager for the Loli'ana Family Shelter run by Homeless Solutions.

"He's here with his students and supervising his students and he's doing a really good job teaching future CPAs that they can provide services for people who don't have all the advantages."

From Maililand on the Wai'anae Coast to Kamehameha Housing near Farrington High School, to the home office of Volunteer Legal Services on Queen Street, Chaminade student Erin Smith has settled down to figure out tax refunds for several dozen families living in shelters or crowded together in small apartments.

He remembers one three-family group of Micronesians crowded in a single apartment with about seven adults and an equal number of children. It was the first time they had filed income taxes, and they were astounded when they received so much money back.

"I think they were going to car-pool and go and buy some furniture and expand the home for themselves and their children," Smith said. "They were so happy."

In fact, Smith caught an error made by a clerk who did the first run-through of the family's taxes. "The refund was $230, but it was bugging me," Smith said.

"Why was this one so much less than two others I had just done? So I came back and found it should have been $2,300. If you check the wrong box, you get a totally different answer."

Tanna and his students aren't just making a difference for the low-income homeless families they serve, but for the state as a whole.

The Hawai'i Asset Building Coalition, a community-based partnership among Chaminade, Legal Aid, Volunteer Legal Services Hawai'i, Bank of Hawai'i and Starr Seigle, has estimated that 15 percent — or about 31,000 people — of those eligible for the Earned Income Tax credit aren't filing for it.

"That's a possible $53 million that could be coming back into the state immediately for low-income folks," Tanna said.

According to income figures, approximately 210,000 taxpayers are eligible for that credit. These people are often considered the working poor. The less they make, the more the credit, but the tax schedule is complex.

"It's available for people who have children under 18 with a total annual family income less than $33,000," Tanna said.

Johnson knows about the working poor. As she fits visits to shelters into her weekly class schedule, she remembers almost 20 years ago when she also spent a week in shelter. Each time she stares into the eyes of someone in the same situation, the memories come back.

"I had just gotten separated and then divorced from my first husband," she said, "and I was a waitress and didn't have anything. I went on welfare because I couldn't find a job, and was in a shelter for awhile with my son.

"I'm getting so much back," she said of helping families now.

"It's a really good feeling. I will definitely help next year too, even if I'm working for a CPA firm. I'll make the time."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.