Weekly Column By Cheri Rae
The IRS agent was in the room, and everyone was just too busy to notice.
Christopher Doyal, a Santa Maria-based IRS agent involved with partnerships in education, surveyed the students focused on preparing tax returns for members of the community. “These kids are learning a life skill, and giving back,” he noted. “They are helping educate others, and enhancing their own financial education.”
These students, trained and certified by the Internal Revenue Service, are participants in the nationwide program known as VITA—Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. Several dozen high schools participate in VITA, but as Doyal proudly observed, “This program at Santa Barbara High ranks Number One across the nation.”
It was the first school authorized by the IRS to file returns electronically, and was described by the Los Angeles Department of the IRS as “The best practice model to be emulated for quality and utility.”
This is the 18th year Dons students have learned to prepare tax returns, and performed this community service for free; each year they assist approximately 600 individuals with their taxes. VITA students are proud of their ability to crunch numbers and figure out complicated tax forms for students, single moms, elderly and low-income individuals who need help—but can’t afford to pay for tax services. As sophomore student/VITA Coordinator Jesus Terrazas puts it: “We help people so they can save money. We teach students good customer service, and it shows.”
Most of the students in VITA are members of the school’s Virtual Enterprise program, known as the Dons Net Café, with the motto, “Doin’ Some Good in the World.” It is part of the ROP (Regional Occupational Program) administered through the County Office of Education. The students learn business and entrepreneurial skills as they run successful enterprises—from selling African bracelets to assist children with HIV/AIDS to running their own website, creating their own marketing and promotion programs; selling healthy snacks and personalized items, as well as participating in community activities from the recent Carrot Mob to Earth Day. Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, recently spoke at their Grand Opening celebration.
All this takes place under the watchful eye of Lee Ann Knodel, known affectionately as “Miss B.” Her extraordinary rapport with students—especially those who are struggling to find their way—inspires many. Her ability to make a one-on-one connection is highly valued; her kindness and generosity are legendary.
“Miss B is way more than a teacher, she is a real friend,” explained a former student. “And you can’t even begin to describe her knowledge of business, computers and especially, people.”
Business partners that support the program include the United Way, Montecito Bank & Trust, Marborg and Partners in Education, as well as The Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots.The VITA services are available free of charge on a drop-in basis on Thursday afternoons at Santa Barbara High School from 3 to 6 p.m. through the end of tax season; the classroom is located on the Canon Perdido side of campus, near Nopal Street. For more information: www.DonsNetCafe.com or view the video here.