Special athletes bond at bowling lanes

The thunder from the lanes at Dorchester’s Boston Bowl echoes through the walls every Sunday morning. Shouts and cheers can be heard from onlookers as almost 60 athletes spend two hours bowling each week from September to June.

Joyce Reardon of Dorchester bends at the waist, gently tosses a small, round ball through her legs and watches as it rolls down the lane, bobbing her head in excitement. After nine candlepins collapse, Joyce jumps in the air and turns around, looking proudly for her sister Mary.

Members of the Dorchester Special Athletes program gathered for a group photo at Boston Bowl.Members of the Dorchester Special Athletes program gathered for a group photo at Boston Bowl.

“Joyce was dressed and ready with her bowling bag at 6 o’clock this morning,” Mary Reardon said, smoothing her dark hair behind her ear. “Joyce absolutely loves coming here and it’s helped her so much. She used to be nervous and didn’t want me to leave her here alone, but now she can’t wait for bowling each week.”

Joyce participates in Dorchester’s Special Athletes, an organization that’s helped bring adults with special needs together for the last 25 years. Athletes are able to participate in a variety of activities, including track and field, swimming, tennis, basketball, skiing, ice skating, golf, cycling, fishing and more. Although it’s difficult to find volunteer coaches, those involved in the program describe it as a close-knit, extended family.

“These programs are so important for the participants, not only because they help them become independent, but they realize that they really can do anything,” said Cathy Cormican, who helps run the program.

Cormican has been involved with Special Olympic programs for over 30 years and has been working with the Special Athletes for about 20. She became involved because her brother Michael, a Special Athlete, enjoyed the program so much and she realized they needed more funding. Now she loves spending time every week with Michael and the other participants and says the group really has become her family.

“This is a part of my life,” said Cormican with a smile. “I’m here to support everyone and I wouldn’t know what to do without them.”

Kathy Johnson agreed, saying all the participants are so close and that so many families of participants are involved as well.

“About 25 percent of our athletes have been involved for at least 20 years and so many of them have family members coming out to bowl as well,” Johnson said. “It’s a huge support system for everyone. We have moms and dads of athletes here, as well as sisters, brothers, boyfriends and girlfriends here to support our athletes.”

Although half of the participants live at home with family members, the other half live in some form of group homes around the state. The Special Athletes program brings them together in community settings, teaching them commitment and responsibility in a non-mandatory, weekly program.

City Councillor Maureen Feeney with Joyce Reardon, a participant in Dorchester’s Special Athletes program, at Boston Bowl. Photo courtesy Reardon familyCity Councillor Maureen Feeney with Joyce Reardon, a participant in Dorchester’s Special Athletes program, at Boston Bowl. Photo courtesy Reardon family

“They all respect each other so much and it’s amazing to watch the new athletes how they start out in September and how they transform by June,” Johnson said. “They really benefit from being here, making friends and socializing. My daughter Kimberly looks forward to bowling every week and is upset when the season ends in June. The athletes who don’t participate in summer activities really miss their bowling friends during the summer.”

Regardless of their bowling scores, the athletes are all smiles. Elaine Abboud of West Roxbury said she likes to come bowling because it’s good exercise. With assistance from her wheelchair, this 75-year-old woman has a grin on her face as she slowly reaches the top of the lane for her turn. Abboud is the oldest of the group and is excited to bowl with her roommate Nancy.

Two lanes over, shouts are heard as Joyce saunters off the lane to hug her sister. Her second place medal, from the Special Olympics games in March, shimmers in the light as it bounces off her Charlie Brown t-shirt.

“I like to get strikes!” she said with a grin. “Bowling makes me happy.”

Unfortunately, after July 1, Special Athletes may not have bowling to look forward to on Sundays. Because of the current speckled economy, Massachusetts is facing $22.5 million in budget cuts to the state’s special needs programs. For Dorchester’s Special Athletes, these cuts could mean the end of bowling and other activities. “Cutting services to the elderly and handicapped is absolutely terrible,” exclaimed Michael Carvalno, a Special Athletes volunteer. “They should hit the administration, not those who are most vulnerable.”