South County Beat: AARP is there to help at tax time

Jerry Winkenback, left, and Don Gore, right, in Grover Beach with the Tax-Aide poster used to promote free tax preparation services by the AARP, sponsored by the IRS.
Jerry Winkenback, left, and Don Gore, right, in Grover Beach with the Tax-Aide poster used to promote free tax preparation services by the AARP, sponsored by the IRS.

Last March I was trying to do my income taxes. Some new laws were hard to grasp. As I grappled with trying to understand them, it came to me that the American Association for Retired Persons has a free tax-aid program.

They must be a bunch of elderly guys who have little training and only do the simplest tax returns, I surmised. Enter a student in my exercise class, Dee Gore. She said her husband, Don Gore, of Shell Beach, has been volunteering as a tax aid for many years, and he is a retired corporate attorney and engineer.

I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, Don was able to solve my tax issues and complete my taxes electronically in record time, saving me hours of filling out forms and anguish.

I met with Don, the coordinator for the Grover Beach site at Rabobank at 899 Grand Ave., and Jerry Winkenbach of Shell Beach, the coordinator in Santa Maria.

Don retired here in 1995 and began volunteering with AARP that year, this being his 17th year. Why does he do it?

“You’re giving back to the community,” he said. He is also the technical coordinator, instructor and the transmitter (sending all electronically prepared files to the IRS).

Jerry, a retired personnel manager for the U.S. Geological Survey, drove down Highway 101 in 1996 with his wife and bought a house three weeks later.

He saw a notice in The Tribune about volunteering for AARP and two years later was running the whole San Luis Obispo County program.

AARP Tax-Aide has 70,000 volunteers nationwide and 60 in San Luis Obispo County — who completed 2,400 tax returns.

A new volunteer undergoes 48 hours of initial training in a two-week program. Returning volunteers must attend the second week of that training to be updated and learn new laws.

All volunteers, new and returning, must pass a comprehensive four-hour IRS test to be certified each year. They must be certified at the highest level.

“We have wonderful people volunteering from all walks of life ... Ph.D.s, teachers, attorneys, retired CPAs, engineers, pharmacists,” Jerry said. Added Don, “It’s a very dedicated group. Most volunteers stay several years.”

Most get a good amount of satisfaction helping people.

“The gratitude and smile on the filers’ faces is unbelievable,” Jerry said.

For example, Don said that he had a woman receive $12,000 back from prior years.

They also give helpful tips. Filing as head of household instead of as a single person, for example, can make a big difference for some people.

Funded by the IRS, the AARP Tax Aid program is free. It is not just for the elderly, but for everyone.

“It’s a common misperception that only the poor come here. This is a working class and middle class program,” Jerry said.

The service is strictly for individuals, and some small businesses (who file Schedule C). It’s important to have all tax forms and papers ready.

Beginning Jan. 15, interested people can call 354-1157 Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to schedule appointments.

Locations in South County are Grace Bible Church in Arroyo Grande, St. Joseph’s Church in Nipomo and Rabobank in Grover Beach.

For additional sites, visit AARP.org.

Gayle Cuddy and Cynthia Lambert write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cuddy at 805-489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.