Hope Wheeler, this year’s Athena Award recipient, at her stand-up desk Tuesday at the CliftonLarsonAllen office in Champaign.

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CHAMPAIGN — The first time Hope Wheeler attended an Athena Award ceremony, it was her first mentor who was being honored.

This year, it’s Wheeler who is being honored with this annual award for women who achieve excellence in their careers and help other women reach their leadership potential.

Since attending her first Athena Award presentation in 1996, Wheeler said she has been to many others and has been in awe of each winner.

“I never expected to be one of the nominees, let alone winning it,” she said. “It really means the world to me and is, frankly, a highlight in my career that I won’t forget.”

An auditor and partner at CliftonLarsonAllen in Champaign, Wheeler, 52, of Mahomet is being presented with the Athena Award today by the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce.

She is the 33rd local recipient of this annual recognition.

Wheeler grew up in Mahomet, went to Parkland College and got a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Illinois in 1991.

She’d worked some part-time jobs in high school — at Mahomet IGA and Hardee’s — and began interning at CliftonLarsonAllen while she was at Parkland and went to work for that firm right out of college, she said.

Employed with the firm as an auditor for 30 years, she became a partner 14 years ago. Her work centers on audits and consulting for local governments and nonprofit organizations, mostly in the central area of the state.

“I also have the responsibility of leading the principals and managers in the Heartland Growth Network (downstate Illinois, Missouri and Kansas) that focus on state and local government audit work, to help continue to grow this practice and ensure our clients are being served well,” she said.

Karl Appelquist, managing partner for CliftonLarsonAllen’s Champaign and Danville offices, nominated Wheeler for this year’s Athena Award.

He describes Wheeler as genuine, true to what she believes in and sincere in her support for others.

In addition to her leadership role, she is active in CliftonLarsonAllen’s coaching initiative, he said.

“She is passionate and committed to helping others,” he said in his nomination. “She also has been highly involved in our career building team over her career, and assisted in initiating recruiting plans, feedback programs and buddy systems.”

Appelquist said Wheeler has mentored a significant number of women and men at the local office, and some of those she has mentored have progressed in their careers from associates to the partner path.

Wheeler has also been actively involved with the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, serving on its finance committee and board of directors and as vice president and president of the board.

“Since joining the board of directors in 2013, she has been one of the club’s most instrumental leaders,” club CEO Sam Banks said in a letter supporting her nomination.

Wheeler has gone the extra mile to take part in activities on behalf of the club’s youth, he said.

“Her commitment has included everything from spending time reading or doing homework with a child after school, attending a special event at the club for kids and families, helping at various club fundraising activities, volunteering to pack school supplies for kids to have for the school year and more,” Banks said.

Wheeler has also been involved with the Executive Club of Champaign County, Champaign West Rotary, her church and several organizations in her field, according to the chamber.

Wheeler’s advice to women aspiring to get ahead in their careers is to find good mentors who share their values.

“That is what I did, and that is what really helped kick-start my career,” she said.

And give back in the same manner, she urged.

“Be a mentor to help other young women in your profession,” Wheeler said.

She’s had many mentors over the course of her career, she said.

Among them has been the 1996 Athena Award honoree Shirley Anderson, who was at that time a manager at the former Clifton Gunderson, which later merged with LarsonAllen.

Another has been Appelquist, who has been both encouraging and given her good advice about how to move out of her comfort zone, Wheeler said.

Also a married mom with two children, Wheeler said her kids’ sports have largely been her extracurricular activity. Though, she said, in the past year, she and her husband bought a camper and begun taking short trips with it.

Wheeler was among 16 women nominated for this year’s Athena Award, according to Lindsay Quick, director of marketing for the chamber of commerce.

Previous winners

2020 — Sharon Allen

2019 — Christy Devocelle

2018 — Deb Feinen

2017 — Deb Reardanz

2016 — Denise Martin

2015 — Amy Randolph

2014 — Sandi Jones

2013 — Bianca Green

2012 — Cindy Somers

2011 — Lori Gold Patterson

2010 — Lynne Barnes

2009 — Kathleen Holden

2008 — Jane Hays

2007 — Donna Greene

2006 — Jayne DeLuce

2005 — Sue Grey

2004 — Beth Katsinas

2003 — Diane Friedman

2002 — Traci Nally

2001 — Lyn Jones

2000 — Linda Hamilton

1999 — Anita Broeren

1998 — Theresa Grentz

1997 — Zelema Harris

1996 — Shirley Anderson

1995 — Mary McGrath

1994 — Linda Mills

1993 — Jan Kiley

1992 — Nanette Fisher

1991 — Gloria Dauten

1990 — Elizabeth Curzon

1989 — Ruth Jones

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