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AN HONOR TO GIVE HELP WITH TAXES -- FOR FREE

Dealing with the tax collector was a snap Thursday for Michael Suwala, a junior at Lackawanna High School.

He simply went to the school's chorus room during his lunch period and -- in about 20 minutes -- had students from the National Honor Society help him file his federal and state returns electronically.

The experience -- part of the Internal Revenue Service's effort to make life simpler for wage earners -- was not only painless, but profitable. Suwala, a part-time cashier at a Blasdell supermarket, will have a $250 refund in days. And there was no fee for the work.

"I was a little nervous at the beginning, but it was all right," he said about having his tax returns filed by classmates. "They were good. They knew what they were doing."

Twelve honor students at Lackawanna High are taking part in the IRS' Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which places trained volunteers in senior citizens centers, libraries and other public facilities to help low-income, elderly, disabled or non-English-speaking taxpayers file their short forms.

The IRS is trying to expand the program to schools, and the National Honor Society chapter at Lackawanna High was quick to jump in.

"We thought it would be great for our students to provide a service to other students," said Gerald Oczek, a social studies teacher and adviser to the honor society. "I see a lot of enthusiasm and cooperation. Our students trust them to do this."

In three weeks, 32 students have had their returns filed during lunch or after school. The effort concludes next week, and volunteers expect a large turnout as the April 15 filing deadline approaches.

Students at Buffalo's Hutchinson-Central Technical High School are also helping classmates file returns and are working at community sites Saturday, said Laurie J. Ruffino, a local IRS spokesman.

Eventually, schools could greatly expand a program in which 1,500 volunteers help file 115,000 returns each year in New York State. "It takes interested kids -- kids who want to learn to do this," Ruffino said.

Michelle Botkins, a Lackawanna High senior who helped file returns Thursday, said the effort has been rewarding.

"Some people really don't know where to get it done," she said. "It's so easy for them to come in and have us do it."

After one day of training, volunteers were at first a bit tentative and sought telephone assistance from Oczek's wife, Karen, an IRS tax service specialist.

Now they're sailing along.

"It has definitely been fun," said Joann Snyder, a student volunteer. "Before, I would have never known how to do any of this stuff. I didn't even know what a W-2 form was."

Tarrell Hendrix, a junior who works at a cement factory, was one of the first students to have his returns filed a few weeks ago, saying he wanted to get an unpleasant task out of the way. But the encounter wasn't so bad after all, because Hendrix had a $424 refund transferred to his bank account.

Oczek said everyone wins, with the possible exception of tax-preparation firms.

"If I can save a kid 40 bucks, so be it," he said. "That's OK."

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