A Playful Hall of Hope

Citrus Heights, CA  |  Story and photos by Jacqueline Fox
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Leveta Hulsey, left, and her friend, Winnie Leal, come from Wheatland together each week to play bingo at Grand Oaks Palace to support Society for the Blind.”

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Diane and Arlie Treas, recipients of care through Society for the Blind, are Tuesday regulars at Grand Oaks Palace.

Grand Oaks Palace On the Ball for Charity

Citrus Heights, CA (MPG) - Each Tuesday morning, rain or shine, Diane and Arlie Treas of Natomas catch a lift to the Grand Oaks Palace Bingo hall on Auburn Boulevard, where the coffee is hot, the energy high and the buy-in fees, which start as low as $20 for some games, are pooled to support a cause hitting as close to home for the couple as it gets.

Diane, who is completely blind, and “her best friend for life,” Arlie, partially blind, are regulars at Grand Oaks Tuesday matinee sessions, where buy-in fees go directly to charity, in this case, Society For The Blind, Sacramento (SFTB), which provides services for roughly 6,000 blind or low-vision clients across seven counties, including in-home life adaptability trainings, mentorship programs, and access to a low-cost vision clinic.  

In fact, every day is charity day at Grand Oaks, where all proceeds from bingo game buy-ins benefit a different non-profit each day, in some cases two in one day.  In addition to the SFTB, Grand Oaks’ hosts bingo matinee and evening sessions supporting The Placer County Food Bank, Mesa Verde High School and Oakmont Performing Arts Boosters.

Volunteers from each of the nonprofits have their own posse of onsite volunteers managing the sessions.  They are in charge of everything happening during their charity gams, including selling bingo cards and daubers, those brightly colored stamps used for marking paper cards, checking winning numbers, cranking out burgers and sandwiches in the snack bar, serving as the number “caller,” and of course, keeping the coffee going.  

Each charity pays rental fees for use of the space.  Typically a daily sessions will include roughly 20 different bingo games, some using old-school paper cards or “sheets,” while others are played on electronic cards or screens, which make it possible to manage multiple cards at once, boosting the pot and increasing the odds of a winning round.  Games vary, as do the payouts, but rarely exceed $1,500 for most sessions at Grand Oaks.

“We’ve been playing here for three years,” says Dianne, who figures her biggest win was about $300 to Arlie’s $1,119.  The two are inseparable, she says, and bingo is their “date day.”

“We are best friends. We were best friends for 30 years and we’ve been married for 10, and this is what we look forward to each week.”

For Arlie, it’s also an outlet.

“Blind people have few things they can really do,” says Arlie.  “This is a great way for us to be together and have fun.”

Founded in 1954, SFTB has benefited from charity bingo sessions at Grand Oaks for 35 years, said Executive Director Shari Roesler, who estimates her organization nets close $270,000 from Grand Oaks bingo each year.

“We are incredibly grateful for the bingo contributions,” said Roesler.  “Funds from bingo at Grand Oaks make it possible for us to run our vision clinic and provide exams for our clients, pay for occupational therapist visits and do in-home trainings for newly blinded individuals and others.”

Unfortunately, while Grand Oaks seemingly continues to thrive alongside a dramatic fall off in business at the other handful of bingo halls across Sacramento County, indeed the country, the numbers are not looking good for the charities served.  Players are either aging out or, more critically, being romanced by bigger payouts at casinos.

At Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, for example, Pano Hall’s 500-seat bingo parlor offers a range of 27 different bingo games, as well as “Mega and Power packages” with payouts into the thousands for standard games, and as high as $128,000 for progressive games, such as the Thunder Jackpot rounds.

The competition, says Roesler, is taking a bite out of proceeds and making it increasingly more difficult to justify the monthly rental fees, even with evidence of a resurgence in interest in bingo by young people who like the electronic card option.

“Thunder Valley and other casinos have taken a precipitous amount of our business,” said Roesler.  “We are monitoring it very closely and, for now, we are OK.  But we have to consider whether it’s viable for us to go forward.  Payouts could never be as high as what they offer at Thunder Valley.”

She said, as far as she knows, payouts at Grand Oaks haven't increased in years. 

Paul Colbert manages bingo sessions benefiting for Mesa Verde, which has been running games three days a week at Grand Oaks for the last 15 years.  He also has seen the numbers change and knows the hall’s attendance could use a shot in the arm.

“We count on the games here to help support our school,” says Colbert.  “The money is used to buy equipment for the sports teams and other school facility needs.  So, it’s important for us to get the word out to support us.”

For now, the balls keep turning and there are no planned changes at Grand Oaks.  That’s good news for Rhonda Schmidt of Citrus Heights who plays the Tuesday matinee sessions each week, alongside her dad, Allen Summers and mother Carol, who suffers from macular degeneration, a progressive from of blindness caused by the growth of “blind spots” on the eyes. 

While Carol has relatively good partial vision, her daughter says she knows the time is coming when services through the SFTB will be needed, so the three are not only having a good time together, they are making an investment in Carol’s future care.

“We’ve played other bingo halls around the area, but this is our preferred spot now,” said Schmidt.  “We come together each week, with our lucky dollar bears that mom makes, our daubers and the attitude that we are playing for a good cause.  The time will come when mom will need help from Society for the Blind, and it feels good to know we are putting our support behind them now for when she does.”