Exceptional Fun

By Gabriella Williams
Photos courtesy of the Exceptional Bowling League of the CSRA

If you listen, you can hear the rumbling, hypnotic rhythm of the twelve-pound resin ball as it rolls over the glossy maple floor — rurrgh-rurrgh-rurrgh. The sound is woven into a symphony of other noises and sensations: the clatter and clank of the pinsetter, the light of neon so intense it makes the air look blue, the smell of floor polish and polyester, the whirr of the underground chute, a cluster of six-pound pins crashing into the back of the deck and out of sight, and the unmistakable tones of chatter, excitement and fun. 

This is the environment you will find on a Thursday night at Bowlero when the Exceptional Bowling League is playing. This historical and outstanding group of adults with disabilities gathers from September to May to bowl and spend time together. 

The Exceptional Bowling League was formed in 1960 by the Reverend Jerry Taylor, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 72. Taylor was an influential figure in Augusta, not only in his professional career as a lay pastor at then named Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church, and his later involvement in the Northeast Presbytery, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but also in his advocacy work for people with disabilities. Taylor was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant. 

Taylor’s role as a public speaker and his connection to the disabled community created an opportunity for him to create positive change for disabled people in the Savannah River Region. He founded the Community Outreach Program for the Handicapped in 1982, which raised awareness for disabilities and helped hundreds of clients make their establishments or homes more accessible through the installation of ramps, grab bars and other features. He also served on the Board of Directors for the Training Shop for the Handicapped and the Mayor’s Committee on Employing the Handicapped. 

The idea to form the Exceptional Bowling League came to him while he was recovering from two brain surgeries and in search of activities to fill his time. Taylor realized there weren’t any disability-friendly extracurricular groups in the area. So, he set out to form his own bowling league, over a decade before the Special Olympics (which was founded in 1968) introduced the now wildly popular category of bowling in 1975. It was one of the first recreational and social organizations for disabled adults in the Augusta area. 

For many decades the league was managed by the Augusta chapter of American Business Clubs (referred to as AMBUCS) until 2009, when it was forced to withdraw its support due to a decline in chapter membership and funding. Since then, the family members and friends of the bowlers have worked to keep the league going. 

Today there are more options and opportunities for adults with disabilities, but the league is still an important staple in the area. The league has deaf, blind, legally blind and autistic members as well as players with cerebral palsy, down syndrome and other intellectual and physical disabilities. 

While bowling is the focus, the league provides much more than pins and lanes for the participants. For some of the bowlers, the league has opened doors that have led to lasting friendships and connections. 

Christopher Bowman has been a member of the league since 2013, when the league was operating from Masters Lanes bowling alley. He was first approached by a member of the group who had seen him bowl at the same facility. 

“She came up and said, ‘Hi’, and stuff like that… and then she said she does bowling on Thursdays and [asked] would I like to come? And I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to come!’” 

For Bowman, the league is about spending time with friends. He’s met many people through the group, and he speaks fondly of the experiences he has had, not only while bowling, but also outside of their weekly gatherings at Bowlero. 

“I’ve made some good friends; we’ve had some fun parties. We cut up and joke and we look out for each other,” Bowman says. He also testifies to the bonds made through the league, “We’ve been through some ups and downs together.” 

Heather Gilliland, Wendy Barker, Theresa Nixon, Garrett Dorsey and Mikaela Smith

The league offers an abundance of activities for the players; they hold Christmas parties, gather for birthdays, dress up for Halloween events, host musicians for fundraisers and parties, take dance classes together, go out to eat and partner with local organizations for unique opportunities, like taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the WJBF studios or bowling with the GreenJackets. 

Members and their families also get involved with other organizations to help connect the players to the community, such as Night to Shine, an annual prom event coordinated by the Tim Tebow Foundation. The friends and families also stay connected by helping with carpool, fundraising and coordinating events.

Currently, the league consists of 47 bowlers and prospective players must join a waitlist. While the league operators and members wish they could allow more players, they are restricted by cost. Initially the group operated regularly year-round but that, too, had to be reduced to nine months to save money. The group is dependent on fundraisers and donations. 

Bowlers only pay for half of their membership fees and the league operators cover the other half, which costs up to $1,000 per month for all 47 bowlers. The fees include the cost of shoe rentals, fundraising efforts and supplies, and lane reservations. 

The group organizes fundraisers throughout the year to keep the league in operation. In the past, they have held yard sales, golf tournaments, quilt raffles and other activities such as publishing a cookbook which contained recipes from the bowlers and local and national celebrities. 

In July 2023, they held the It’s Okay to Be Different Bowling Tournament where groups and individuals could sponsor lanes. The event featured special guests from WRDW and WJBF, and spectators were able to participate in a silent auction and raffle, as well as a bake sale, and enjoy a show by an Elvis performer. 

The group intends to hold more fundraiser events this winter. 

For more information and a calendar of events, visit their Facebook page at Exceptional Bowling League of the CSRA.

As seen in the November/December 2023 Issue of Augusta magazine.

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