How bingo is saving the Lions

Don van Straaten calls out bingo numbers during a game.

SAN MARTIN — In a noisy Lions Club hall just off of the San
Martin Airport, more than 200 people had their eyes fixed on a
television monitor with rows of bingo cards laid out in front of
them.
SAN MARTIN — In a noisy Lions Club hall just off of the San Martin Airport, more than 200 people had their eyes fixed on a television monitor with rows of bingo cards laid out in front of them.

While some of them simply had their bingo markers – called daubers – in hand, others were carrying on conversations, eating food, and playing more than 18 cards for single game.

The noise level had slowly been dropping as the tension raised in hardest bingo game of the night, Game 11. Game 11 is blackout, when a player needs their entire card to be filled in order to win.

Through the growing quiet, suddenly Ignacio Hernandez called out “Bingo!” and a collective groan went through the crowd.

“This is about the third time I’ve won,” Hernandez said as he collected his $250 prize for winning the game and the noise of the hall again began to pick up.

He said that while other players may do more things for luck while playing, he only has two superstitions – including always using a blue dauber.

“It’s my favorite color, and I always put the cap upside down, like this,” he said as he pointed to the blue-colored cap from his dauber.

Hernandez finds playing bingo a way to relax.

“I come pretty often,” he said. “I think I started coming the third week.”

But while Hernandez and other bingo players are having fun – and possibly coming away with prize money – the San Martin Lions Club is slowly climbing its way out of debt.

According to Diane van Straaten, president of the 52-year-old club, the club found out in January that it was $5,000 in the hole.

“We couldn’t pay our bills,” she said.

But rather than fold the tent and call it quits, the 34-member club – which previously only raised money through a pancake breakfast on Super Bowl Sundays, a spaghetti dinner on the last Friday of October and through renting out the building – decided to look for another way to stay alive.

“We couldn’t afford not to get started,” van Straaten said.

Van Straaten’s husband, Don, mentioned the possibility of running a bingo night like some other Lions clubs do, and from there the idea turned into reality. However, running a bingo night isn’t at all as easy at is might seem, as the van Straatens quickly found out.

They went to the Santa Clara branch of the Lions Club to watch its bingo night in action and to meet Bill Wakaluk, a 20-year veteran as a bingo manager.

“He took us under his wing,” Don van Straaten said. “Bill hooked us up with the Bingo Vision and Gaming in San Leandro. They fronted us $17,000 in equipment to get us going.”

Wal-Mart donated two televisions that show the balls as they come out of the lottery machine, and a friend painted the inside and the outside of the

building.

“There’s a lot more to it than the Bingo,” van Straaten said.

She also said the community came to help out the club by offering donations and helping out wherever they could.

“When people heard that we had no money, the outpouring was enormous,” she said. “People gave us donations and support. They said ‘tell us if you need anything.’ ”

Once the group had the building ready to comfortably house everyone and had all the equipment – including two large boards that light up when a number is called, the lottery machine, microphones and camera equipment – it still needed to do a test run to make sure they could handle running the weekly event.

“The people who started this didn’t know a thing about it,” Diane van Straaten said.

However, they got through it and handed out flyers at other local bingo halls to try and get people to show up for their first bingo night in April, and 126 people showed up.

Now about 200 people are showing up for bingo at the San Martin location each week, filling up the parking lot and packing in the hall every Wednesday night.

For van Straaten, it’s an opportunity to get to know a whole new group of people.

“They can do that and eat and carry on a conversation all at the same time. These people are amazing,” she said. “We have a lot of ‘professional’ players. They let you know if you’re doing something wrong.”

Bingo night also give the club a chance to let the community know what it does and also to receive donations to help pay off its debt.

“A lot of people don’t know what we do,” van Straaten said.

The club gives scholarships to students each year, collects donates old eyeglasses that are sent to third world countries and gives to those in need. On that particular night at the bingo hall, the Lions Club was celebrating because they were able to help a 5-year-old with poor vision from Gilroy to see an eye doctor at Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco.

“This club is always taking care of people in San Martin, but the extra money allows us to expand to Gilroy and Morgan Hill,” Don van Straaten said.

Patrons can play bingo for the price of $20 for two packs of bingo cards. Each pack allows a player to play six cards for each of the 20 games that are played each night. Additional packs are sold for $5 each and daubers cost $1. Bingo starts at 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday and runs until 9 p.m. The winner of each game takes home $250.

Each night, while $5,000 is given away in prize money, $1,500 to $2,000 is pulled in by the club, which uses it to pay off its debt and give to the community. The club almost has paid for the bingo equipment and will then pull in money it hopes to use to upgrade its building, but it isn’t sure whether it will keep its home near the San Martin Airport or not because of the airport expansion.

“We built this home 20 years ago with the work of volunteers and the understanding that we had a lease for 20 years,” Diane van Straaten explained. “Our lease is up December 31 of this year. We’re hoping the county will continue the lease. Our fate is in the hands of the airport commission.

“It’s a scary thing. We’re at their mercy,”

The building, which sits at the south end of the airport on the other side of the street, isn’t just the home of the Lions Club. It’s also the home of South County Country Dancers, who also volunteer on bingo nights, two 4-H clubs, County Board of Supervisors meetings, CDF meetings, San Martin Community Alliance Meetings and used to be rented out for weddings before it turned out to be “more trouble than it was worth” because the place was often trashed after the reception parties.

“A lot of community groups use the hall,” she said. “It’ll put a lot of people out on the streets if it closes.”

The club has plans to upgrade the building if it isn’t taken by the county. Among those plans are installing air conditioning, fixing the parking lot, putting on a new roof and a new floor.

“It’s 20 years old, and it hasn’t had a lot of upkeep,” van Straaten said.

The Lions Club bingo night is from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays at 12415 Murphy Ave. For more information call 683-4448.

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