Wednesday, November 17, 2010

People with disabilities in N. California find support through bowling team

From the Contra Costa Times:

They call themselves the Wild Turkeys -- 74 bowlers who come together each Monday afternoon to knock down pins, socialize and have a good time.

They selected the name because in bowling parlance, a turkey is three consecutive strikes, and league founder Ron White explains that "when one of them gets a turkey, they all go wild."

As bowling names goes, it's a good one. But the name also holds nuances that make it a great one. Every member of the Wild Turkeys is developmentally disabled -- mental retardation, deafness, autism, cerebral palsy. Some people might see them as having three strikes against them, but they're wrong.

Watching these men and women laughing, cheering each other on, focusing on rolling strikes and celebrating even the gutter balls, it's obvious that the only real strikes these Wild Turkeys have are at the end of the lanes.

Their spirits are what first drew White's attention. White, who has spent most of his life in the Bay Area, had worked in retail and was part of the team that opened the original Sears store at Sunvalley mall in Concord. He retired from the company and, looking for something to do, started driving a bus for a company in Martinez. On his daily rounds he got to know the regulars, some of whom were disabled.

"I was just thrilled with the population," White, now 75, says. "Thrilled at how joyful and happy they can be and how they take care of themselves and each other."

They took his bus to and from work, and while some of his other passengers would ride in sullen silence, his disabled riders would be talking and smiling, happy to have a job, happy to be alive, happy to go to work every day.

The bus line, already operating on shaky finances, began to fail, and White was laid off. Around this time he read a small newspaper article about a program called Commercial Support Services, a division of Contra Costa Advocacy Respect Commitment, a nonprofit organization. Many of his riders were involved in the program, which teaches life skills focused on employment training. White decided to learn more about it and ended up going to work there.

Ann Shackelford, program coordinator for the Concord-based group, says it was White who came up with the idea of a bowling league for their clients. He had learned of others for developmentally disabled people, and based the Wild Turkeys on them.

The bowlers have varying levels of ability, but they all share a love of the game and the weekly get-togethers. Every Monday, 3-5 p.m., October through May, they meet up at Paddock Bowl in Pacheco. Their laughter and cheers for each other at times drowns out the sounds of balls roaring down lanes and crashing into pins. Bowlers in wheelchairs use special chutes; others have developed unique stances and techniques.

"They all have different styles," White says. "They know the adjustments they need to make."

Leslie Gilmore has been bowling for several years. She also holds an orange belt in martial arts.

"Seeing my friends," Gilmore says when asked what she likes best about the bowling. "Seeing everyone bowling."

Robert Rodriguez, who has been with the group for about four years, says he likes the feeling of power when throwing the bowling ball, and the sound when he gets a strike. But it might be the trophies he wins that he likes best.

The recognition is important, White says, so he spends a good deal of his time rounding up trophies that he can use at the end of the season. He works with Devil's Mountain Awards and Recognition in Concord, transforming used and donated trophies into awards for his bowlers.

"Each bowler gets a trophy," White says. "We've got first, second, third and fourths, but I've also created lots of categories so that everyone gets something. Because they bowled and tried their best, they get a trophy."

Although the bowling itself can be good exercise and therapy for bodies that don't always work as they were intended, the league offers more than that, White says.

"The No. 1 thing," White says, "is that it's important for any of us to feel good about ourselves. Too often this population is ignored. I'm not putting any blame, but some people are uncomfortable around them, and so it's like they don't even exist.

But with bowling, he adds, they can be out in public, seeing themselves doing something that the public does, White says, "and doing it better than most of the public can do."

On Tuesdays, White reads each score on the public address system at the Commercial Support Services offices, where most of the bowlers work. And the scores can be pretty impressive -- many bowl in the upper 100s and several are in the 200s. A few have been good enough to advance into local, regional and state competition.

Yet the scores aren't the most important thing.

Joyce Lechtenberg of Pleasant Hill has been watching her son, Richard, bowl for a number of years.

"It's a wonderful social outlet for him," she says. "He doesn't get out much otherwise. He used to go to dances, but he got tired of them. He always wants to come to bowling."

White gets most of the credit for creating, organizing and maintaining the Wild Turkeys -- something he is uncomfortable with -- but the group also relies on parents and volunteers who staff the lanes and make sure everything goes smoothly. Without them, White says, the Wild Turkeys couldn't fly.

White, who put in 25 years with Commercial Support Services and retired in 2008, is considering stepping back from the league, but he needs to find a replacement first. A good CEO, White says with a big laugh, is always looking for his replacement. He'd also like to find more volunteers to replace the parents.

"Parents already have a lifelong devotion," White says. "They need a break."

The program is completely volunteer, White says. The only payment is the reward of being with the bowlers and sharing in their joy.

And in bowling terms, that's a 300 game.