Every Thursday afternoon, Rose Newcombe settles into her chair in the large ballroom of the Sinto Senior Center, sets up her microphone and welcomes visitors to one of the few bingo games that still exist in Spokane.
Bingo has long been a staple activity at senior centers, but it used to have a much broader appeal. Every bingo hall in Spokane has closed over the last 20 years while large casinos were constructed in the area, attracting players looking to win big. The last bingo hall in Spokane, owned and operated by the Spokane Youth Sports Association, closed just before the pandemic began in March 2020.
According to the Washington State Gambling Commission, the number of bingo licenses for nonprofits has steadily declined statewide and in Spokane for years now. There were 310 bingo licensees statewide in 2018, compared with just 106 licensees statewide for the first half of 2022. In Spokane, four of the remaining bingo licensees are senior centers, three are Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, three are Fraternal Order of Eagles aeries and one is a Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks lodge.
The closure of the Spokane Youth Sports Association’s bingo hall ended Newcombe’s 16 years there as a bingo caller, as well as the nonprofit’s main source of organizational funding. Nonprofit organizations have used bingo halls and bingo games for fundraising purposes for decades, thanks to exceptions in state gambling laws for nonprofit organizations.
“I do miss it, it was like a family over there,” Newcombe said.
As the chair of bingo for the Sinto Senior Center, Newcombe said the weekly games still are a major fundraiser for them, even though the crowds are a lot smaller than they were at the former bingo halls in Spokane that once stood in downtown Spokane. She said casinos likely are to blame for the diminished crowds, but those who play at the senior center come for the sense of community.
Newcombe said she enjoys fostering an environment in which everyone is included. The bingo games at the senior center are open to all ages, and bingo cards cost just a few dollars for the opportunity to win anywhere from $50 to $200.
Marsha Stoeser, a community inclusion specialist at Excel Supported Living, often brings her clients who are developmentally disabled to the senior center to partake in the various activities. She said Newcombe does an excellent job of ensuring everyone feels welcome, and that the Sinto Senior Center is their favorite place to play bingo due to the atmosphere and low cost.
“We have a lot of the same players show up, so they get to visit with friends and have lunch for a few dollars,” Newcombe said. “I think that sense of community really keeps them coming back.”
The bingo games have become a family affair for Newcombe, with her mother Joan Newcombe and her daughter Doralicia McCoy acting as her assistants. While Newcombe calls, McCoy sells the cards. McCoy’s two sons, Newcombe’s grandsons, also volunteer at the senior center and help drive members to various outings.
“It’s just a fun game here, nothing too crazy,” McCoy said. “We all get to know each other pretty well and everyone gets along.”
McCoy said she enjoys the senior center so much that she paid $300 to become a lifetime member a few years ago, making her one of the youngest members there.
Across the river, Meals on Wheels Spokane’s Mid-City Concerns Senior Center offers a free bingo game three times a week for those 60 years old or older. Owen Esperas, executive director of Meals on Wheels Spokane, said the games draw 20 to 50 players consistently, with many returning every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to play. In addition to bingo, the senior center offers a variety of activities for members.
“It’s definitely the most popular thing we do,” Esperas said. “We have a consistent crowd so we end up building relationships with each of them.”
Edwin Leong, 62, said he has made it to just about every game since he became a member. Although he never frequented the bingo halls while they were still around, he remembers the large crowds he would see at the Big Brothers and Big Sisters bingo hall while working at a Domino’s Pizza nearby.
Leong said he enjoys the relationships he’s developed at the games, and it is a convenient location for him if he needs to take the bus or ride his bike. Although the games are free, there are prizes available for winners courtesy of the sponsor of the games, United Health.
“I like it because it’s fun,” Leong said. “You don’t necessarily have to win to enjoy it, but if you do win, it’s even nicer.”