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Veterans Optimistic About Their Efforts To Keep Bowling At Jefferson Barracks VA

Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

Roger Denly, 43, is still learning the fine points of bowling while seated in a wheelchair, but last Thursday afternoon he was enjoying "tenpin therapy" at the little six-lane bowling alley at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center.

“It’s freedom. It gets me out doing something I enjoy,’’ said Denly, an Air Force veteran who lives in Farmington, Iowa.

Denly was paralyzed from the waist down in a deer hunting accident last November. He’s been a patient for about a month in the spinal cord injury unit at Jefferson Barracks, the nearest facility to his home.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Roger Denly, a patient in the Jefferson Barracks VA spinal cord injury unit, is learning to bowl as part of his recreational therapy program.

Denley says he’s still getting used to life as a paraplegic, but bowling reminds him of home. This was his second attempt at “adaptive bowling”-- using a ramp to roll the ball down the lane. On his first visit, he bowled a 146.

The bowling alley, which opened in the 1950s, is a rarity -- one of the few still operating on the premises of the nation’s 152 VA medical centers. Thanks to the determination of volunteers who work at the lanes -- and the generosity of donors -- the tradition is on track to continue when a new recreation center opens in 2017.

The alley, with its vintage pinsetters and décor, is located in one of the 14 buildings being demolished as part of a $360 million upgrade under way at the medical center.  Because of funding restrictions, the VA had agreed to provide space -- but no money -- for four bowling lanes in a new rehabilitation complex. That sparked an effort to raise $500,000 to construct and equip a bowling alley in the space. 

The project still needs to raise about $55,000 more, says Jim Donahoe, who led the local fundraising effort for the Fisher House at Jefferson Barracks. He’s been helping the group, called “Bowling for Veterans Health,''  with its effort to build a new alley.

Donahoe says the committee recently received $190,000, the major portion of an anonymous donation made to the VA medical center for veterans programs. Donahoe says that by streamlining the contracting process, the grant will cover the cost of construction and décor. That group has also received a $50,000 donation from the Veterans Canteen Service and $10,000 from the Gateway Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans Association. The Brunswick Corporation has agreed to discount new equipment.

Donahoe says bowling is a valuable resource for the VA’s staff therapists who often bring new patients to the lanes as a first step in recovery.

“Once they come out and enjoy bowling, then the recreational therapist will say, ‘Now let us show you what else you can do: scuba diving, kayaking, swimming, hand cycling, wheelchair basketball,' ’’ he said.

With the donations already in hand, Donahoe is convinced that the project is doable.

“We’ll be going out to appeal to individuals, veterans service organizations, corporations and other people who are interested in bowling,’’ he said.

The bowling alley is as much about camaraderie and encouragement as it is about rolling strikes or spares, says Ed Rousan, one of the dedicated group of volunteers -- most of them veterans -- who help out at the lanes.

“If it wasn’t for the bowling alley a lot of these guys would be sitting in their rooms not doing anything,’’ Rousan said.

The fundraising committee has been working with H.E.R.O.E.S Care, a nonprofit that helps military members and their families.

For more information: 

* Contact Jim Donahoe at 314-973-0012 or donahoejb@hotmail.com.

* Donations can be mailed to: Voluntary Service, VA Medical Center, #1 Jefferson Barracks Road, St. Louis, MO 63125.

* To make an online donation, go to the Donate page of the H.E.R.O.E.S. Cares website. (Click on “Proceed to Donate” link, and be sure to enter the word Bowling in the comments section.)

* Read our previous coverage: Local Veterans Are Raising Funds To Save Bowling At Jefferson Barracks VA

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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