Two days a week during tax season, Calvin University student volunteers gather at five desks set up in a former funeral home and current nonprofit in Grandville, Michigan, to help low-income individuals and families file their tax returns through an IRS-run program called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or VITA. 

Site coordinator and Calvin alumna Ashley Oosterink laughs at the irony of their location. “‘In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.’” Penned in 1789, it was one of Benjamin Franklin’s last and most enduring quotes. 

Nevertheless, VITA’s long-standing partnership with Calvin’s School of Business is alive and well. The Grandville location is one of several thousand around the nation providing tax help to individuals, families, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and people who speak English as a second language who need assistance preparing their returns. The location is funded by United Way of West Michigan and hosted by United Church Outreach Ministry (UCOM). 

Calvin’s partnership with VITA began about 20 years ago under the leadership of professor emeritus David Cook. Oosterink has served as the UCOM location coordinator for the last 11 years and says today it is primarily staffed with Calvin student volunteers. These days, she partners with Calvin School of Business professor Scott Rush to train students, conduct reviews of student-prepared returns, and submit those returns electronically. 

This year, junior accounting major Malia Verkaik returned for her second season as a VITA volunteer. She says she’s back because she enjoys helping her clients while learning important skills. “It checks both those boxes of learning for me and of giving me an opportunity to help those around me, which I also love. There’s a lot of appreciation. A lot of gratitude,” Verkaik says of the clients she serves. 

Student volunteers like Verkaik commit to VITA for the entire tax season. Starting in January, they attend three training sessions led by Calvin School of Business professor Rush and must pass both a basic preparer exam and an ethics test.  The program then runs from early February through April 15. 

Oosterink says students learn filing skills as well as soft skills that will serve them well in their professional lives. Though most clients are “extremely grateful” to expect a refund, challenging situations do arise from time to time. 

“We’ve had a few clients get really upset when they learn they owe money. Those situations do get a little bit stressful. But it’s good for students to experience, because you’re not always going to have people happy with everything you’re doing in the workplace.” 

Oosterink and Verkaik agree those situations are rare. Verkaik adds, “A lot of people appreciate having someone to talk to about the job they have or their family life. They’ll show me pictures of their grandkids. They appreciate having another person who wants to talk with them and listen.” 

Many VITA clients don’t speak English fluently, so a translator is also available to support the tax return filing process. “Something that takes me 15 minutes might take some of our clients three hours if they did it themselves,” says Oosterink, who sees some clients return year-after-year. 

“One elderly client came in every year, and she’d ask us our names and write them down. ‘I’m so grateful for everything you did,’ she’d say, ‘and I’m going to think about you all year long. I’m going to pray for you.’” 

Oosterink and Verkaik both feel Calvin’s long-standing partnership with VITA aligns with the university’s mission to equip students “to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal.”  

“Thinking deeply means students have to put themselves in the place of the people they’re helping and to understand where their clients are in life and what kinds of challenges they may be facing,” Oosterink says, explaining that for many, a tax refund isn’t just extra money; it represents funds they can use to meet basic expenses like rent, food, or medical bills. 

Verkaik adds, “Part of acting justly is making sure everyone has what they need, and taxes are something everyone has to file. Our clients get to reclaim a little more agency in their lives because they’re able to get their taxes filed and have a weight taken off their minds.” 

Last year, Oosterink and her team completed 372 tax returns; this year they’ll serve close to the same number of individuals and families, offering their listening ears, clear answers, and steady support navigating a process that, for many Americans, can often feel anything but certain.