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Program developed by Robert Morris University professor provides free tax help to military families

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 12:38 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Robert Morris University volunteer tax preparer Una Japundza (left), 22, a senior international student from Croatia, helps fellow international student Yulia Vasilyeva, 19, a junior from Russia, file her 2012 tax return. Students are among the volunteers who trained to help military veterans, active members of the military and low-income people file tax returns.

Marcel Minutolo was stunned to learn no volunteers were certified to assist members of the military or military veterans during tax season last year. So the management professor at Robert Morris University decided to change that.

Minutolo, himself a veteran, and a crew of students and community volunteers used a grant from the Money in Your Pocket Coalition to train and become certified to provide free tax help this year to military families. They will help low-income people as the April 15 filing deadline approaches.

The tax service they offer in a computer lab at the university's Moon campus filled a void for members of the Air National Guard at the 171st Air Refueling Wing. Guard members and veterans from the base relied on paralegals at the base for tax assistance until transfers and resignations left the office understaffed.

“This was definitely a welcoming service, and I personally can't be thankful enough to them for volunteering to serve our members,” said Staff Sgt. Mary Wargo.

Wargo said some Guard members and veterans initially were skeptical about the service. But as word spread about how quickly the volunteers completed tax returns, double-checking each one, Wargo said more people began to tap them for help.

Jessica Heimbrook, 24, a senior at Robert Morris working toward a master's degree in taxation, juggles six courses but eagerly agreed to do taxes at the center.

“I just love the experience that it gives me. But the thing that struck me the most was how appreciative people were that they didn't have to pay and could have it done for free,” she said.

Kimberly Morris, an Imperial mother of two who works two jobs, isn't in the military but was thrilled to learn she qualified for the service.

“In the past, I have paid as much as $120 for basic tax prep,” she said. “This was a huge savings for me, and it was close and convenient.”

Minutolo said one of his tax clients told him that another preparer touting “free” service actually wanted $111 to prepare a return on $10,000 in income.

“That's huge,” he said.

The specially trained volunteers scan for benefits unique to military members. For example, one client qualified for earned income and child tax credits because the income he earned while deployed was tax-free.

“He laughed when I told him he didn't have to take it,” Minutolo said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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