Business

Friday, Apr 24 2009 06:59 PM

Staying close to home for fun with BINGO

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    By Alex Horvath

    Alex Horvath / The Californian To raise funds to help its operating budget, the Volunteer Center of Kern County hosts Bingo at Westchester Hall. They average 160 players every Thursday evening. Beth Bentley, a regular, plays 42 cards and 26 video machine cards at a time.

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  2. 2 of 4

    By Alex Horvath

    Alex Horvath / The Californian To help raise funds to help its operating budget, the Volunteer Center of Kern County hosts Bingo at Westchester Hall. They average 160 players every Thursday evening. A regular is 91-year-old Jerry Meistrell.

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    By Alex Horvath

    Alex Horvath / The Californian Ink daubers are neede to play the bingo sheets.

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  4. 4 of 4

    By Alex Horvath

    Alex Horvath / The Californian To raise funds to help its operating budget, the Volunteer Center of Kern County hosts Bingo at Westchester Hall. They average 160 players every Thursday evening. Lavita Coleman and her friend Vina Jefferson (not shown) are regulars. The two come by 11:30 a.m. to reserve their seats.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART, Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

The unfortunate thing about charity bingo is the revenue it generates tends to go down just when it's needed most.

People don't gamble as much when the economy is weak, which also is when there's a spike in people turning to social service organizations for assistance, said Brenda Ratliff, executive director of Volunteer Center of Kern County, an umbrella organization that recruits volunteers for homeless shelters, food banks and other non-profit agencies.

Related Info

Non-casino Bingo operators licensed by the city of Bakersfield:

* Garces Parents Association, noon Sundays in the Garces Memorial High School cafeteria, 2800 Loma Linda Drive.

* K. Hovnanian's Four Seasons, for community members only.

* L.Q. Performing Arts Center, 7 p.m. Fridays. Operators declined to disclose location.

* Smoke Tree Seniors, 6 p.m. Mondays, Smoke Tree Mobile Estates, 4401 Hughes Lane.

* Stockdale Villa Homeowner Association, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Stockdale Villa Mobile Home Park, 3535 Stine Road.

* Valley Schools, could not be reached for comment.

* Volunteer Center of Kern County, 6:30 p.m. Thursdays at Westchester Hall, 2801 F St.

The Volunteer Center is one of seven non-casino bingo operators licensed by the city. The center hosts weekly games that are the primary fundraiser for its roughly $200,000 annual operating budget.

There was a lull in players toward the end of last year, Ratliff said. Attendance -- normally as much as 180 -- dipped to the 130s.

"I think everybody was a little shell shocked over things that were happening at the time," Ratliff said. "It really scared us."

But crowds are creeping up again and turnout was close to normal at a recent game last week, Ratliff said.

Beth Bentley was there playing beside the whimsical collection of turtle figurines she brings each week for good luck.

"I have a very stressful life at home, so this is my time to relax," she said.

Bentley, 58, is the caretaker for both a blind husband and an adult son who recently moved back home after suffering a work-related injury.

She used to play bingo several times a week, but like many, has cut back on discretionary spending.

"To be honest, I wouldn't even come this much except I won a year of free bingo last year. I've got until September," Bentley said.

Beverly Starr, 67 another regular, shook her head knowingly when a man hawking tickets for bingo "specials" reminded crowds for the second that he still had plenty left.

"Nobody can afford to buy them anymore," she said.

Starr has cut back in other areas, but not bingo.

"I don't get out much. I'm disabled. I have a bad leg," she said. "This is all I do. I've got to have something."

The homeowner association of Stockdale Villa Mobile Home Park used to make a lot of money off bingo, which paid to spruce up the park, said Darlene Phillips, who runs the community's bingo games on Wednesdays.

"Now we pretty much pay out (in winnings) what we take in. We don't really make anything on it anymore," Phillips said. "If we do get a small profit, we just spend it on a little party for the residents."

Garces Bingo, which holds games on Sundays to benefit Garces Memorial High School, has managed to hold pretty steady despite the recession, said Geri Kauffman, who helps run the games with her husband.

"It's something you scratch your head at," she said. "I've seen other recessions, but not like this one. We were bracing ourselves, but so far we're OK.

"I wonder if people are just staying home more because they can't afford to go to Vegas or the Indian casinos."

Linda Benton, 61, recently started a new bingo game to benefit improvements at Smoke Tree Mobile Estates.

Benton's not worried about the timing of the game's launch. If anything, she said, the recession should help.

"Where else can the older people on fixed incomes go and have a whole evening of fun for $10?" she said. "You can't even go to a matinee movie for that, and it gives them something to do."

Ratliff said the social aspect of bingo is what keeps her game going, too.

"We know everyone's name here. We look at pictures of their grandbabies and we know if someone dies or has a stroke.

"You don't have that kind of atmosphere at a casino."

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