When Stanton Ware retired as staff director of the National Academy of Sciences about 10 years ago, he cast around for something to help fill his new free time and that would help others less fortunate than he was.

He said he found just what he was looking for in the Senior Tax-Aide Program, an innovative volunteer program designed by the American Association of Retired Persons to help elderly people complete their income tax returns.

"I had a desire to do something to help people less fortunate than I -- older than I," said Ware, 75, of Montgomery County. "I heard about this program and said, 'Now there's a good outlet for my energies, and it helps older people.' It was ideal."

The 20-year-old program, which is available in Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties, has 25,000 volunteers operating in more than 8,600 sites nationwide, according to Beverly Jones, the AARP senior program specialist.

In the Washington suburbs, the volunteers are "people who have a fascination with mathematics and a fascination with taxes," said Walter Davis, the coordinator for the program in Montgomery County. The majority are over 65 years old and come from varied backgrounds; volunteers include retired Internal Revenue Service employees, federal workers, lawyers, business people, former military personnel, certified public accountants, teachers and homemakers.

Laura Tise Magnuson, 28, is the youngest tax-aide volunteer in Montgomery County this year. A self-employed lawyer, Magnuson is expecting a baby in March, and is easing her workload in preparation. She decided this would be a good time to do volunteer work.

Magnuson was attracted to the program partly because of the weeklong preparation course that deals with the essentials of tax returns and tips on how to counsel the elderly. She described the course as "very intensive" and "information-packed."

"It seems like a good way to learn about the {tax} changes," she said. "I learned a lot of good, practical information."

She found the other class participants, three-fourths of whom were repeat volunteers, to be "very savvy." Despite her legal training, Magnuson said she was "one of the least informed people in the classroom. I think the seniors in the county are going to be in good hands."

Senior tax aid is supported by the IRS through a $2.4 million program to fund 34 nonprofit volunteer tax assistance organizations. The AARP project is the largest of the 34 and the only national program. The IRS reimburses the program for materials, and volunteers are offered mileage reimbursement.

Many of the people who come to the program for help are elderly widows, volunteers say.

"Some of them are quite confused," said Monette Ross, the program manager at Rockville Senior Center. "Some of them are partially blind."

This is Annie Jenkins' second year as a tax-aide client. The Rockville resident said she had a hard time filling out forms after her husband died. She asked several of her friends what she should do and sought professional help. "But they asked me so many questions I got all messed up," she said. She spent several hours at a firm and still did not get her return finished.

Her friend Ethel Shelton, who had been using the tax-aide service for six years, suggested Jenkins join her. This year, the two were the first appointments at the Rockville Senior Center the day the program started.

"They are excellent," Shelton said of the tax-aide counselors. "They explain everything. And on top of that, it's free."

Some people come to the tax-aide program because they are intimidated by the IRS, volunteers say.

"We try to convince them that the counselor is not a policeman," Ware said. "We try to convince them and put them at ease that the government is not their enemy, that the government needs money and it's a good one and that we are their friends."

In addition to the intricacies of the tax code, the volunteers are prepared for how to counsel their clients. In their preparation class, the volunteers are advised on sensitive matters such as what to do with people who clearly are making enough money that they should be getting professional accounting help.

"Some people have moral scruples" about filling in forms for people who have "enormous incomes," Davis said. In those cases, the counselors are advised to turn the form over to the person in charge of the program at that location, who, viewing the complicated return as a challenge, often will do the form rather than turn away the client.

Ware said that some volunteers are hesitant to ask a woman her age. He tells counselors to approach it by asking her when she will qualify for the over-65 deduction.

" 'Well, I can right now,' they say. I've never had the slightest problem determining if a woman is 65 or over," Ware said.

While volunteers generally will not turn away clients because of age, they prefer them to be older than 60.

Many of the counselors give their home phone numbers to clients so they can help them year round with tax-related questions. "I regard these people as friends," said Edward Herndon, a Montgomery volunteer who coordinates the program's six-member unit, which offers service to shut-ins.

Ware said that many of his clients insist they want to pay for the services. He said he encourages them to donate to a church or library or to a favorite charity.

"I used to say 'No, we can't let you pay because we do this because we love you,' " Ware said. "But I don't say that anymore. You know why? Because I'd have them crying on my shoulder."

For information on the tax aide program in Howard County, call 730-7697.