Healthy returns: Union’s VITA program honored for its contributions to community

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Union’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, which helps local families prepare their tax returns free of charge, was recently honored at a ceremony in Albany.

CA$H, a coalition of organizations led by United Way of the Greater Capital Region, presented its Volunteer Service Award, known as the “Wally Award, ” to Mary O’Keeffe, who teaches economics at Union and oversees the VITA program. The award is named in memory of Wallace G. Donnelly, a tireless volunteer in the region who died in December 2009.

In the past six years, Union students have helped secure millions in state and federal refunds for hundreds of low-income working families and senior citizens. Union’s site at the Kenney Community Center partners with the IRS, Schenectady County Department of Social Services, United Way of the Greater Capital Region and the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

The program was launched by Therese McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Students in O’Keeffe’s service-learning class, “Income Tax Policy and Practice,” volunteer four nights a week for six weeks during prime tax season. They must complete IRS training and pass a certification exam before working with taxpayers. Students also help train volunteers at other sites in the city.

“The coalition truly appreciates the involvement in the training and providing of VITA tax prep services at Union College,” said Richard Zazycki, chair of the executive committee of CA$H (Creating Assets, Savings and Hope).

Last year, 16 students helped a record 200 families by volunteering more than 600 hours. Angela Tatem, director of the Kenney Community Center and her staff also participate.

This year, volunteers will be available Monday to Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Kenney Center from Jan. 20 to March 3. To schedule an appointment, call (518) 388-6652.

“It’s a great honor for our VITA program to be recognized,” said O’Keeffe. “Many of our alumni say that VITA is what they remember most about their college education.”