VERMILLION, SD – While the middle of April is generally considered the busiest time of the tax season, for six University of South Dakota law students, their experience providing assistance in rural Alaska in the middle of February may always rival even the most hectic tax deadlines.
From February 9-18, three groups of two students and their professor Ramon Ortiz, hosted free tax assistance clinics primarily serving Native American communities in northern remote Alaska. The clinics were hosted in Nome, Elim, Fort Yukon, Arctic Village and the Doin village of Jetza.
“Where I was located in Arctic Village, it was -40 degrees,” said Kaleb Paulsen, a third-year law student. “In Anchorage where we completed our pre-deployment training, it was warmer than South Dakota by about 20 degrees.”
Each student was allowed only a 40 pound backpack to carry their sleeping bag, toiletries, food and water. Many of the locations they visited were only accessible via bush plane or snowmobile. In addition to acquiring a certificate from the IRS in tax preparation, applicants to the program complete several steps including an interview to ensure they can handle the extreme conditions.
“Many of the people we assisted were subsistence fishermen and hunters living in an extremely isolated environment, often with no internet,” said Cody Raterman, a third-year law student who primarily served in Elim and Nome. “In Elim alone, we helped file $100,000 in federal income tax refunds. That’s an influx of money that will benefit their local community.”
The students said they appreciated the opportunity to serve. As a team, they assisted over 500 individuals and families prepare and file tax returns.
“Each community appreciated our assistance so much. They invited us into their homes and provided us with the use of their snow machines. They even cooked us meals of moose, caribou and crab,” Paulsen said. “It was a life-changing experience.”