- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) - If taxes are one of life’s certainties, then Charlene Gardner is one of tax time’s certainties.

For more than two decades, the indefatigable Gardner, 81, has overseen the popular AARP Tax Aide program at the Senior Resource Development Agency in Pueblo.

With the confidence of a CEO and the compassion of a good Samaritan, Gardner guides a team of 21 volunteers as they prepare and electronically file as many as 40 returns a day.

A retired Pueblo City Schools (D60) educator, Gardner said she became involved in the program after it was in danger of folding following the loss of its director.

“My friend was in charge and he was leaving town,” Gardner said.

“And I felt that the program was too valuable to lose, so I stepped in.

“And I’m still here. I really enjoy the work and I’ve made a lot of friends, some of whom I only get to see this time of year.

“Some have been here as long as I have, and some I’ve lost.”

For Gardner and staff, the extensive groundwork begins long before the filing starts.

A month before the program’s start in February, all volunteers undergo a week of rigorous training with Gardner.

That’s after each has studied for and passed an online test.

“Our volunteers are very qualified at what they do,” Gardner said.

“Some have worked for paid preparers.

“And they never work alone. There will always be at least two volunteers on duty.”

When Gardner began, there were only five total volunteers who, on the average, completed only two returns each a day.

“And that was the time of adding machines, calculators and carbon paper,” she explained. “We would do the returns in pencil and then cover them over in pen.”

Now the program has become so popular that often times, the day’s docket - created on a first-come, first-served basis - is immediately maxed out.

“The line was 25 deep at 7:30 a.m.,” Gardner said of a recent workday. “On another occasion, a gentleman arrived at 5:30 a.m. so that he could be first in line. And there he was waiting for us, with breakfast and blanket.”

Although the program is sponsored by AARP, Gardner said people of all ages and from all walks of life seek out assistance. While seniors and retirees do make up a good portion of the clientele, “we get high school and college students, everyday working people,” Gardner explained. “We will do anyone.”

As tax time can be a nervous proposition for many, putting clients at ease is a high priority for Gardner and staff.

“Especially with the older generation, those who came up through the Depression. It’s been pounded into their heads to be afraid of the IRS,” Gardner said. “That’s why we immediately try to make people comfortable.”

In addition to the efficient and accurate filing, the fact the service is free contributes greatly to its popularity.

“We’ve figured that right off the top, we are saving everyone who walks through the door $200,” Gardner said.

“Now, multiply that by the 2,000 we will see during the season.”

Additionally, 85 percent of clients get a refund. And on occasion, the volunteers are on the receiving end.

“There is this wonderful gentleman who has been coming for years,” Gardner said. “Every year he brings us a fruit tray and doughnuts. He is very grateful and very fabulous.”

A few of the volunteers, like Vern Porter and Ernie Ulery, have been with the program nearly as long as Gardner. Others have a shorter tenure but no less dedication to Gardner and in turn, the community.

“I love to work here,” said Rosanna Trujillo. “Charlene has a lot of knowledge with taxes and she’s very helpful.

“But in here, it’s all business. You come in here to work.”

A general in a battlefield of numbers?

“Yes, I guess you could say that,” said Ed Brown, a city councilman and longtime volunteer. “She keeps an eye on us and doesn’t let anyone bother us. Ninety-nine percent are happy and want to comply, but then there are a few who want to tell us what to do.”

“But I nip that right in the bud,” Gardner added. “I keep a handle on things.”

In addition to SRDA, the AARP Tax Aide program is offered on certain days at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, 10 University Circle, and at the Walsenburg Senior Center and the Canon City Golden Age Senior Center.

As director, Gardner’s workday does not conclude once the day’s last client leaves. There are stats that must be compiled and forwarded to the AARP national offices, scheduling of volunteers and other duties that come with being in charge.

“I will admit, there are times I get tired,” Gardner said. “But I feel this program is a very valuable asset to the community.”

When it comes to volunteering, Gardner is, well, a seasoned pro. She does computer-related work at SRDA, lends her time to El Pueblo History Museum and is both building administrator and an elder for the Westminster Presbyterian Church.

“Service to others can bring a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that you’re giving back to the community.”

___

Information from: The Pueblo Chieftain, https://www.chieftain.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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