Adults with special needs unite in their love of bowling

On an otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning, members of the All Aboard bowling program show up at Lynnwood’s Majestic Lanes. Even before they get inside, most are already smiling.

And there will be many more smiles over the next hour. Because for the All Aboard bowlers, Tuesday mornings are never ordinary.

As Andy Lazzarini of Everett explained, “this is probably the best time I have every week. I like the bowling and I like interacting with the folks.”

All Aboard is an Everett-based organization that offers a variety of programs for adults with special needs, both mental and physical. Some have Down Syndrome and other intellectual handicaps. A few are in wheelchairs, while others move only with the aid of a walker or on the arm of a friend. Several have trouble speaking even in simple sentences.

Though the gamut of disabilities is large, what unites these people is the joy of bowling. And for one hour every week, they are all very much alike.

“I love bowling,” said Ryan Carlson of Lake Stevens. “And I like making a lot of friends.”

“This is kind of a big family,” said Davina Rosten of Marysville, a caregiver who accompanies bowler Karen Wike of Lynnwood every Tuesday. “They all look forward to this so much. I just wish people off the street could come in and see how much fun this is.”

The man responsible for All Aboard bowling is John Parkin of Seattle, a retired entrepreneur who became the program’s volunteer coordinator about 10 years ago. He contributes his time, his efforts and sometimes even his own money, and he has grown the program from only a few participants to upwards of 150.

Every week, Parkin tries to find some way to make a good time even better. Once a month he organizes a cake party for those with birthdays in that month. In late October the bowlers all came in Halloween costumes. And before Christmas there was another party, this one with Santa Claus.

The good folks at Brunswick Bowling, which owns Majestic Lanes, do their part, too, offering discounted rates of $8, which includes shoe rentals and soft drinks. And for those with financial needs, All Aboard offers scholarships.

Not everyone is a skilled bowler, of course. Most use lanes with rubber bumpers, so no one suffers the embarrassment of a gutter ball. Some participants, including the blind bowlers, take advantage of bowling ramps that aim the ball in the proper direction. And a few simply place the ball on the ground and give it a two-hand shove to send it rolling slowly toward the pins.

Scores are kept, but the primary goals are fun and friendship.

For people with disabilities, the All Aboard bowling program is a chance “to be in an environment where no one puts them down for who they are,” Parkin said. “When they’re here, no one looks at them any differently. It’s total acceptance. And for some of them, it’s the one time in their lives they can get out.

“When you see their smiles, you know they’re not fake smiles. They’re very genuine. And if anyone gets a strike or a spare, everyone else gives them a high-five.”

There are other benefits, too. All Board is a life-skills program, so there is an emphasis on self-sufficiency, Parkin explained. Participants have to get to and from Majestic Lanes, which might require using public transportation. Likewise, they have to bring money to pay their weekly fees, and then request their own bowling shoes and soft drinks.

Also, they must abide by the rules, which include no swearing, no hitting, no running, and no taking of someone else’s belongings. Every so often Parkin has to discipline a bowler for some infraction, with the usual penalty being a brief suspension. And given how much everyone looks forward to Tuesday bowling, it is probably the worst punishment imaginable.

Indeed, the number of participants continues to grow, “and I’m anticipating that by April I’ll have a waiting list,” he said.

Parkin stays busy on Tuesday mornings, first by collecting money from the bowlers, then by making announcements on the loudspeaker, and later by addressing other issues as they come up. But the funny thing is, he seems to smile as much as everyone else.

“You cannot have a bad day when you talk to these folks,” he said. “They all have their own story, their own reason for being here, and they all have a gift. So this is just very rewarding for me. I almost feel guilty about it sometimes because it is so rewarding.”

And although Parkin puts in many hours with no paycheck, “I’m getting paid back many, many times over.”

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