On a roll: 27-year-long bowling programs strikes all the right notes for developmentally disabled

As the glossy bowling ball spins down the spit-polished lane and collides perfectly with the triangle of pins waiting at the end, local resident Melissa Harmon realizes she has just bowled a strike and does a little happy dance.

Behind her, a small crowd cheers, and for a moment it’s a typical scene at a typical bowling alley. In this quick second of jubilation, Harmon and her friends celebrate what she can do and forget what she can’t.

It’s a welcome change in the life of a developmentally disabled adult, where chances to feel successful and good at something and to be recognized for that success, can sometimes be few and far between. Often friendships and opportunities to socialize are also hard to come by. But, it’s moments like Harmon’s that local organization Foundation for the Developmentally Disabled tries to provide for their clients, and they seem to have found the perfect place for it among the flashing lights and glossy lanes of the bowling alley.

The Foundation for the Developmentally Disabled (FFDD) is the only organization in Collier County that provides services and social programs to adults with disabilities like cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and the entire spectrum of autism. Though there are plenty of programs in place for developmentally disabled youth, once a student ages out of the school system, parents are often left thinking, “now what?”

It was this exact question several local families were struggling to answer when they came up with the bowling program 27 years ago. Started in 1984, at Woodside Lanes, by a few families with developmentally disabled adults, the program has become the cornerstone of the FFDD.

Today, the program has grown so much that they now offer bowling twice a week, one day at Beacon Bowl in North Naples and one at Woodside Lanes in East Naples. In all, around 100 bowlers come out each week, with this past Saturday’s Bowling Banquet being the social event of the year for many the foundation’s members.

“It’s social, it offers friendly competition and it gets ‘em up and moving, a lot of these kids turn into couch potatoes,” explained Becky Stark, whose son Adam has been bowling with the league for the past eight and a half years. And for the families of these adults, she stresses, “it’s more than just a bowling league.”

Stark outlines how important the league has become for her as a mom. “It’s a great resource for parents, so we can network and share doctors or dentists we’ve found. It can be difficult to those.”

As the parents chat and compare notes, a bowler who just achieved an all time personal best comes galloping around the alley, hugging anyone and everyone willing to share his joy.

Nearby, two bowlers help the third player in their three-person game who is wheelchair bound. While one bowler grabs the ball the other wheels his friend into position and sets up a rack that the ball can roll down. It is a team effort, but it is one that is executed each round with absolute love.

With all the joy, smiles and love in the room it’s hard to imagine that many of these adults struggle to make friends and engage in the community. But, according to FFDD executive director, David Glenn, the options available — both socially and in terms of employment — for this population are devastatingly limited.

“They want to be contributing members of society,” said Glenn, adding, “but with few programs and social opportunities they often just end up sitting in front of the television all day.”

Erwin Leeber, who has been bringing his son Scotty to the group for the past six weeks, confirms this. “All he was doing was lying on the bed watching TV, now he can’t wait to get here each week,” said Leber, detailing how it has been harder than ever to keep Scotty active and engaged since his wife passed away a few months ago. He added, “I never knew this program existed, but my boy absolutely loves it. The people are just so nice and I just think it’s wonderful.”

Especially wonderful is the community’s support for the program. The two bowling alleys both offer games at a very steep discount while the Bonita Springs Lions Club gives the group an annual grant to help offset their bowling banquet costs. And Glenn is quick to point out that the weekly bowling sessions couldn’t happen without the slew of volunteers who show up every week to assist.

And while the Foundation for the Developmentally Disabled has big plans, including introducing a new series of life skills classes and working to provide housing options for developmentally disabled adults, Glenn insists that the weekly bowling league will always be a fundamental part of their program.

Which is a good thing for Patty Robinson, the general manager of Beacon Bowl, where the Monday morning bowling league meets. “I absolutely look forward to Monday mornings, they all — every single one of them — come up to me and say ‘good morning’ and tell me their high scores. God bless them.”

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