November 26, 2011 8:21:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Penny Burchfield walks to the line and sizes up her task, undistracted by the low, rumbling symphony of bowling balls and staccato knock of falling pins all around her. Cheers and high fives break out from a nearby lane, and when Penny bowls a spare, she gets them, too.
It's how Gutter Busters roll. Three Saturdays a month, October through April, this very special league turns out to urge each other on. They relish every outing.
Bowling is only one activity sponsored by The Arc of Lowndes County, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education, socialization and community inclusion for citizens with developmental or intellectual disabilities. It's one of 700 state and local chapters nationwide. For families with members with Down syndrome, autism or other developmental issues, it can be a lifesaver.
"I don't know what we would do without Arc," said volunteer Mary Lewis. Dressed out in her purple Arc T-shirt, she cheers as heartily as any bowler, especially when her brother, William, has a turn. Five members of her extended family have coped with their own disabilities, so Lewis knows as well as anyone what a difference The Arc can make.
William, 61, lives with Lewis and her husband. It's a promise she made her mother, who passed away several years ago -- to watch over her brothers, William and Moses, who needed special care. Moses enjoyed bowling, too, but passed away in July. He is sorely missed, but his family is grateful for the support he found in The Arc and within the Ellisville State School's Columbus Community Programs.
"Every Saturday (during bowling season), me and William get up and know we're going bowling," said Lewis. "They have so much fun!"
Peggy Glover agrees. Her son, Stan, has been a Gutter Buster since the program began seven years ago. Stan, 55, may have difficulty with speech, but he has no problem expressing his delight at the bowling alley. His eyes, his wide smile, say it all.
Stan has always done just about anything anybody else did, said his mother, watching her son send a ball down the lane with force. He held jobs at Jitney Jungle and Jubilations and is active at First Baptist Church.
"He is really into bowling," she smiled." He has his own bowling ball, bag and shoes." He even practices at home, with a Wii game his siblings gave him.
"The exercise is a main benefit," said Glover, explaining that Stan was diagnosed as diabetic about three years ago. "And the social life -- they all cheer for each other. The whole group really encourages each other."
Katie McCluney is a Gutter Buster bowler and offered her personal insight.
"It's a time for me to let go of all my frustrations," shared the New Hope High School student, who turns 18 today. The quiet-spoken teen is often found playing guitar or spending time with her youth group from State Line Baptist Church. But she's become a fan of the physical exercise and the camaraderie. "I can really forget about things that may be bothering me."
Ellisville State School Recreation Therapist Yvonne Ellis was also at the bowling alley. She often takes the ladies who lives in the James W. Hunt Group Home in Columbus to Arc activities.
"They really do get excited about it," said Ellis, who writes and develops exercise and leisure programs for the home's residents. "Participating in events out in the community helps them gain a sense of becoming more independent. It helps them maintain a level of functioning capacity and improves their overall health."
That Columbus and the surrounding area has an Arc chapter at all is, in substantial part, due to Norma Jones, who serves as president. Her 17-year-old son, Peter, was born with Down syndrome.
"After moving here from Chicago when Peter was almost 2 years old, we just didn't see a lot of things here to support individuals and families dealing with these disabilities," said Jones. She and another parent, Leslie Junkin, put their heads together.
"God really blessed us. There were five of us at that first meeting. Now we have about 150 members," stated Jones, a fifth-grade teacher at Fairview School.
In addition to Gutter Busters, The Arc also organizes a Challenger softball/baseball league for the warmer months, hosts family fun days, an awards day each spring, a "total beauty" pageant and other activities throughout the year. They help individuals participate in Special Olympics, local fishing rodeos and camping trips. They also host workshops and conferences and serve as a powerful support system for caregivers.
"We never have a program without somebody crying; we just need each other so much," Jones remarked.
The many programs are supported by annual dues of $15 from families and $25 from organizations or businesses, but activities aren't limited to members only. "We want to help anyone in our communities who needs us," she made clear.
The Arc is grateful for corporate helping hands, like a generous $3,500 Eco Lab/Microtek Community Living grant. Each dollar is used wisely to help ensure that every individual and family living with an intellectual or developmental disability has access to the information, advocacy and programs they need to be active members of their community.
Penny Burchfield's mother, Joan, expressed the wish of every parent or caregiver: "We want them to have as full a life as possible."
Jones agrees. "Whatever we do, we make sure everybody feels like a winner." And if the cheers going up at Columbus Lanes are anything to judge by, that's exactly what Penny, William, Stan, Katie and their friends are feeling.
To learn more about The Arc of Lowndes County, email [email protected], or contact Jones at 662-352-3184.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.