At first glance, it’s like any other league at Bel-Mark Lanes in Scio Township. But look more closely, and you’ll notice a few people need their shoelaces tied. Some speak haltingly or in three-word sentences. A few need to be reminded when it’s their turn.
The Saturday Morning Challengers is a league for bowlers with physical or mental disabilities, run by a handful of dedicated volunteers from Chelsea.
Organizer Bob Pierce, executive director of the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce, is bowling coach, problem solver, and all-round encourager to dozens of developmentally disabled people. Among them is his son, Mike, one of the fifteen original members when the league was established in 1996.
Pierce and his wife, Nadine, are there on almost every one of the thirty-two league Saturdays from September through the end of April. Every other week about twenty-five to thirty residents of the St. Louis Center in Sylvan Township swell the ranks so that the league takes up twenty-five or more lanes. The participants’ ages range from ten to sixty-two.
“We let them pick who they like to bowl with,” says Pierce. A group of eight women always bowl together, and some roommates from group homes stick together. Others mix it up a bit more.
Many bowlers come every week, and some come back for open bowling, says Ron Cockfield, owner of Bel-Mark. The alley donates trophies and pizzas twice a year for parties.
By 10:15 a.m. one recent Saturday, the league is in full swing, with balls rolling and friends high-fiving or chatting away. A handful of young adults have too many problems to bowl. They come along anyway, with a family member or a roommate, to enjoy the camaraderie. Pierce wanders from lane to lane in his neatly trimmed beard and red baseball cap. He pats the shoulder of one bowler and solves a problem with a ball retrieval device. He squats down to give a short woman some advice on her swing.
John Lee says he’s been coming for fifteen years. “And I’ve never been tired of this one yet,” he says, pointing referring to a game in which he scored 151. Lee has many friends in the league and one recent week was planning to celebrate his birthday with some of them by going home and playing Wii bowling for a few hours.
“He adopted me for my little brother,” says Devern Gay, whose loud voice and enthusiasm carry through the lanes. “I like the people here. They’re like my second family.”
Shannon Swinney, a friend of a league member, says bowling provides a sense of accomplishment and “a social get-together. . . . This is very important to them. In the summertime, they really miss it.”
“It’s amazing to see them all functioning and doing things independently,” says Marge Wright of Ann Arbor, whose son David is in his thirteenth year with the Challengers.
Parents and caregivers like the league for the social time it gives their disabled children—and for the two-hour break it gives them. Some parents use the time to shop or do errands. Others hang out and compare notes. They trade doctors’ names and give each other moral support. They arrange carpools.
Pierce doesn’t bowl any more—arthritis, says Nadine. But he loves the bowlers and the Saturday mornings he spends with them. “This is how I recharge my batteries,” he says. “This population has so many challenges, and they just enjoy every minute of what they’re doing.”