Rural Louisiana Students Continue to Help Build Community Wealth

Last Updated: May 30, 2012

This article appeared in the May 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Since its beginnings in 2007 with a single St. Helena High School student, the youth-led poverty reduction work in rural Louisiana has grown and developed into a multi-faceted community resource that improves the lives of residents.

The Rural School and Community Trust provided seed money for the project, which originated from a high-school student’s desire to reduce poverty among low-wage workers and elderly residents in her community. (Editor’s note: See the RPM story about inspiring student Jolanda Burton here.)

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Center relocated to East Iberville High School several years ago and now operates with a satellite site at nearby Belfair Baptist Church.

Annual planning for the project begins in the fall. Each November, students receive training from the Internal Revenue Service to become certified in tax preparation at either the basic or advanced level. Students also serve as greeters and intake workers for the taxpayers who visit the clinic. A site coordinator — also a student — reviews the tax returns for accuracy, and returning students often advance through the various positions. Each center is completely student-operated.

The centers typically open to community residents in mid-January and remain open through the end of tax season. Students advertise the services of the centers around the community through a website and banners. VITA centers target elderly and low-income residents, but will also work with other citizens needing assistance with a simple return.

According to Rural School and Community Trust Youth Coordinator Veniayetta Aikens, who helps organize the VITA project and other poverty-reduction work, an important relationship develops between the student and the people they serve. Aikens says that community members come into the centers looking for specific students who have helped them in the past because they have confidence in the students’ abilities. And, in a dynamic not unfamiliar to those who’ve worked with teens, Aikens says the students relish their newfound expertise, and enjoy having the “upper hand” on adults.

The VITA clinics have become community institutions, and often receive calls well in advance of opening to confirm that they will be in place for another year.

East Iberville citizens also benefit from other youth-led poverty reduction initiatives

In addition to operating the VITA clinics, students are also contributing to the financial literacy of young people and community residents alike. Before tax season, student members of the Youth Financial Coalition choose a personal finance topic and develop client-friendly brochures for use at presentations in the community. One recent topic was “Opening a Checking Account.” This project is carried out through business education courses at the school.

And, banking has also been added to the menu of services for the community. The East Iberville High students created the Tiger Credit Union, a deposit-only institution which provides direct deposit for taxpayers who’ve used the VITA center and are expecting a refund. Community members and teachers are also allowed to maintain savings accounts through the credit union.

Over 40 students have participated in this year’s poverty reduction efforts, from freshmen to seniors. East Iberville requires students to complete volunteer service hours in order to graduate, and many students volunteer at the centers to fulfill this responsibility.

The benefits accrue to community members and students alike. Aikens reflects, “The students’ eyes are opened to new career opportunities and fields of study” as a result of participating in the various projects. She continues, “At the school, they are looked up to and have increased confidence from knowing they are doing something to benefit the community.”

Read more:

More RPM coverage of the project’s goals in past years here:

Previous coverage of the students’ efforts from the nonprofit What Kids Can Do:

Read more from the May 2012 Rural Policy Matters.