Thirty-five years ago, Ken Milani didn't know that $8 would change his life.
But it did.
Back then, Milani, a recently minted Ph.D. from the University of Iowa , was driving his beat-up brown station wagon along the highway, his wife Joan at his side and three small kids in back. A stiff January wind buffeted the car windows as barren trees and roadside houses whipped past. The young family trundled forward toward Milani's new teaching job at the University of Notre Dame.
Less than a week after arriving on campus, students Jim Symons ('74 JD) and Tom Krajewski ('72 MBA) approached Professor Milani and told him about an Indiana state tax law that provided an $8 credit for each family member in a low-income household. Eight dollars, times a family of four, added up to $32, and that bought a lot of groceries in 1972. The students were interested in helping local residents claim the tax credit but needed someone to train them first on how to prepare federal tax returns.
Would Milani do it? With his household belongings still in cardboard boxes, the young Milani agreed to train a few students and coordinate a small tax preparation effort on the west side of South Bend .
“It was an old red brick building,” recalls Milani. “We would go there every Saturday morning, maybe 10 students and myself... dim lighting... drafty windows. We were working with our jackets on.” That tax season, they filed about 100 returns, helping people with very little means get their $8 credit and sometimes much more.
When winter rolled around again, Symons and Krajewski had graduated, but Professor Jim Wittenbach had joined the College. He and some students showed interest, so Milani said he would give the program another year.
Then, in 1974, a tornado struck Rochester , Ind. , a small town about an hour from campus. Some local residents called Milani to ask how to claim their casualty losses. He, Wittenbach and a handful of students began to make their way down U.S. 31 to help affected farmers and townspeople file their tax returns. They had to go back the next year because there were loss carry-overs. Then, sure enough, there was another tornado.
“Every year, we would say, ‘How about one more year?'” recalls Milani, with a gentle shake of his head.
One more year became 35. Milestones marked the journey. Local branch libraries opened their doors to the Tax Assistance Program (TAP), providing expanded and highly visible sites. The Internal Revenue Service founded a formal volunteer assistance program and invited Notre Dame to join. Professor Milani developed an undergraduate course which includes the TAP volunteer work and extensive training sessions covering federal and Indiana tax law. Saint Mary's College Professor Claude Renshaw brought some of his accounting students aboard, and local CPAs began to lend a hand at busy centers. Tim Gray ('64), father of TAP volunteer Shaun ('89), endowed the program in honor of his mother, Vivian Harrington Gray, who was a volunteer tax preparer herself.
Somewhere along the line the state of Indiana dropped the $8 tax credit. But new needs arose. After receiving calls from taxpayers who were too frail to come into one of the centers, TAP volunteers formed a “SWAT team” to serve disabled taxpayers in their homes and hospital rooms. And when international students at Notre Dame asked for help deciphering the tax implications of complicated tax treaties with the United States , the Tax Assistance Program expanded once again. Graduate accounting students, working with local CPA Tom Bullock, continue to prepare tax returns for Notre Dame's international students, who today hail from more than 100 countries.
Milani says his work with TAP has made him a better teacher. ““I could sit here (in my office) all day and try to conjure up some kind of unique scenario; the real world beats me every time,” he says. “I had a lady this year, as a matter of fact, we spent a good three hours on her return—myself and two students—and there wasn't much she didn't have going. I mean, there were rental properties, she had a death in the family, she had a casualty loss. You name it. So when it was all over with, she said, ‘Are you going to use me in your class next year?' I said, ‘Well, I'll certainly talk about you.”
Still under Milani's steady hand, the work continues. During the 2006 tax season, TAP volunteers filed 3,250 tax returns for 1,814 area residents and international students. More than 90 students and several local accountants served on SWAT teams and at 11 area centers.
Former volunteer Tommy Bramanti ('05) described the routine. One evening, the winter before last, he drove through neighborhood streets as twilight fell, the car's headlights peering through a light snow. Parking his car outside the Western Branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library, he carried a box inside and began sorting out envelopes and postage stamps, putting pens on tables and leaving forms and schedules in the neat plastic box. The room was empty but would soon have the steady hum of work getting done.
With time, a long line of people began to wind outside the door. Bramanti knew that soon other students would join him, and they would break into pairs to begin working on the returns. To get the last return finished, they would often have to stay an extra hour.
“You get to help a lot of people and you get confidence in your accounting skills,” recalls Bramanti. “When you donate your time and skills, it means more than donating money. You get to know them on a personal level—you see that they had medical bills, so you know they were sick. They open themselves up to you.”
And sometimes through the course of filling out returns, students confront their prejudices. “I walked into the program with an ego and almost patting myself on the back for the good work I was about to complete,” wrote a recent volunteer. “But, from the first day, I realized that most of the people we help are not ‘poor' or inferior in any way. They are people who may have been dealt a bad hand in life or had bad luck or are simply hard-working everyday people. Once I found a common ground with these people, I was humbled.”
As students have graduated from Notre Dame, they have founded tax assistance programs in cities around the country. Today, alumni run more than 20 tax assistance programs modeled after the Notre Dame TAP vision: “to provide free income tax return preparation service to low-income individuals on a regularly scheduled basis at locations that are convenient.” (See alumni profiles in next section.)
Milani, his students and alumni have helped tens of thousands of taxpayers file their returns. Over the years, one woman in particular stands out in his mind. Haltingly, she made her way into the local library guided by two young children. Milani learned that she was blind and raising her children on less than $15,000 a year. He worked on her return and told her that she was entitled to a $3,000 refund.
With tears welling in her sightless eyes, she asked Milani, “Are you God?”