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Santa Barbara High Dons Net Café Tax Assistance Program To Be Recognized in Washington, D.C.

The student-run Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is getting accolades for its work, which includes filing more than 600 income tax returns every year

Santa Barbara High alum Mirella Orozco, center, volunteers with the Dons Net Cafe tax help program every year, giving back to the organization that gave her a start in the field.
Santa Barbara High alum Mirella Orozco, center, volunteers with the Dons Net Cafe tax help program every year, giving back to the organization that gave her a start in the field.        (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

The line started forming outside the Dons Net Café well before 3 p.m. on a recent Thursday, where residents held onto their W-2s and hoped to arrive early enough to file their taxes on a first-come, first-served basis.

More than 20 students filtered into the room after the final bell rang on the Santa Barbara High School campus, clamoring to change into black slacks, green ties or other professional attire.

This is the weekly scene for the group’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which will be recognized this month on the national stage in Washington, D.C.

Dons Net Café students are heading to a business competition in Virginia later this week and then will give a presentation about its tax-help and other programs at the Global Issues Network Conference at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. 

“Super busy; Really awesome,” was how Dons Net Café COO and junior Julia Danalevich summed up her organization, a Regional Occupational Program of the Santa Barbara County Education Office.

It’s not the first time Dons Net Café, which has 13 other student-run ventures, has gotten accolades for its free, 23-year-old tax-help program for low-income residents.

As a volunteer tax site, the café became the first school to ever be awarded an IRS Electronic Filing Identification Number, according to program adviser Lee Knodel — better known to students as Ms. B.

Dons Net Café students electronically file more than 600 tax returns annually, she said.

Her tips for those seeking tax help were not to wait until the last minute and to remember that parents can claim their children as dependents up to age 24 if they’re full-time students.

“We help everybody,” Knodel said, noting low-income can be a subjective term because of Santa Barbara’s high cost of living.

“You think it’s about numbers — it’s about people. Our kids get jobs.”

Mirella Orozco, 24, comes back to volunteer at VITA every year, having found herself in the bookkeeping field after high school graduation.

She said VITA taught her how to prepare for interviews, work on resumes, balance a checkbook and more. It’s why she runs her own VITA programs for the Police Activities League (PAL) and on the Eastside.

“What didn’t I learn?” Orozco said.

Hector Avila, who graduated from Santa Barbara High in 2014, also still volunteers at VITA. He’s a bookkeeper for a local nonprofit and is studying to become a CPA.

“I fell in love,” said Avila, whose sister Elizabeth is the current Dons Net Café ​CEO.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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