AARP tax assistance program coordinator is nominated for Wilsonville First Citizen award
On a dairy farm in Minnesota, at about this time of year decades ago, Sue Woebkenberg watched her parents spread receipts and papers across the kitchen table and begin manually calculating the farm's income and expenses.
Her father viewed tax season as an informative look of the previous calendar year while her mother, who wasn't as tax savvy, dreaded the endeavor.
Clearly, Woebkenberg inherited her father's appreciation for the annual exercise.
And, as the coordinator and tax preparer for the AARP tax assistance program at Wilsonville Community Center, she channels this interest to help people like her mother navigate tax season without stress or financial burden.
For her efforts, Woebkenberg was one of four citizens nominees for the First Citizen award — presented annually by the Wilsonville Rotary to a citizen who epitomizes exemplary leadership in the community.
"It's extremely rewarding to do someone's tax return, especially seniors. For them, their return is very difficult. For us, it's probably not," Woebkenberg said.
Of being nominated for the award, Woebkenberg said: "When I saw that email I thought, 'This can't be right.' And then I read it again and again and it seemed to be signed by someone real in the Rotary Club. So it was like, 'Oh man, I can't believe that.'"
Woebkenberg's interest in monetary organization was sparked while taking a bookkeeping class in high school. Then, she majored in accounting at St. Cloud State University.
Instead of being the archetypal numbers maven, Woebkenberg said she's interested in recording information, which she says was sparked while working on the farm as a kid.
"Most people think you have to like numbers. I don't necessarily think it was that I liked numbers. I've always been interested in how to record information, how to record income and expenses," she said.
At a time she describes as "a million years ago," Woebkenberg was a practicing certified public accountant and prepared tax returns for a CPA company.
She then became a comptroller and chief financial officer for manufacturing companies for most of her career, where she assembled financial statements each month.
Meanwhile, Woebkenberg prepared her own tax return and would help family and friends file theirs as well.
When she stopped working full-time in the mid-2000s, she needed something else to do.
Seeing an ad in the paper for volunteers for the tax assistance program, Woebkenberg decided to attend a meeting for prospective volunteers.
For the program, the timing was auspicious.
"The district coordinator for the region is the one who called the meeting. He said 'I'm really glad to see you guys, the three of you, because all of the volunteers we had in Wilsonville either want to leave Wilsonville and go to another site or they want to retire,'" she said.
As the most qualified member, Woebkenberg immediately assumed the role as site coordinator. And she hasn't relinquished it since.
However, Woebkenberg prefers sifting through tax information to administrative work and even volunteers as a preparer for a West Linn tax assistance program.
"(As a coordinator) You're responsible for making sure the rest of the team has information. That gets frustrating and tiring sometimes," Woebkenberg said. "But actually doing the returns, no. In fact, that's why I volunteer at a different site, because, there, I'm just a preparer so I don't have to do anything at the end of the day except go home."
While the Wilsonville site began with just three members, 11 people are a part of the team now. Woebkenberg says they complete between 250 and 300 tax returns per year.
"I can't do anything by myself in this program. It's all the volunteers that make it really successful," she said.
The program targets seniors, low-to-middle income residents and immigrants from other countries who struggle to complete or prepare tax returns on their own. Woebkenberg often sees recurring clients.
"The majority of our clients should not have to pay for a tax return. That's what this service is all about," Woebkenberg said.
During tax season, Woebkenberg's first appointment is at 9 a.m. and she often doesn't leave before 5 p.m.
Her neighbor and friend Debra Ross, who nominated Woebkenberg for the First Citizen award, said Woebkenberg spends time at home organizing the program and double-checking returns.
"She pretty much marks out everything in her life starting in January and ending in April," Ross said. "She's very committed to it."
However, compared to preparing financial statements for companies, Woebkenberg says helping out with tax returns is "a piece of cake."
Woebkenberg says there is a tax preparer shortage in many areas of the country, and though her site is well-staffed now, she encourages interested citizens to volunteer.
Ross says her husband joined the team as a receptionist a few years ago and has enjoyed working under Woebkenberg's leadership.
"She has a great sense of humor. She works well with other people. She makes it fun. He wants to go back every year because there's an atmosphere of fun," Ross said.
When tax season is finished, Woebkenberg spends her time with her grandchildren and managing her vegetable garden, where she grows beans, tomatoes, kale, cabbage, pickles, squash and pumpkin. She also raises chickens.
"I grew up on a farm. I'm a farmer by nature. It never leaves," she said.
Though she hopes to relinquish her role as coordinator one day, she can't see her-
self ever quitting tax preparation.
"It's too rewarding," Woebkenberg said.