BELTON — It’s Thursday afternoon at the Belton Senior Activity Center on 842 S. Mitchell St. Even though lunch time is winding down, the pace in the dining room is picking up. Plates and cups are replaced with bingo cards and playing markers, and more people are entering the room than leaving.
Finally, about 35 people are seated at the scattered tables. All eyes are fixed expectantly on Diane Sigafoose to get the ball rolling.
Well, actually, lots of balls. Sigafoose is the one responsible for setting the fist-size, numbered bingo balls in motion inside a clear box. She operates the machine that blasts air into the container then randomly selects, one by one, airborne balls. Sigafoose calls the numbers, and a large, lighted board displays the selected digits until a lucky player’s card has a row of numbers covered by markers. The winner shouts “Bingo!” a prize is claimed, and the process begins again.
Sigafoose, 76, said she never anticipated in her earlier years she would be involved with bingo games, much less volunteering to orchestrate them.
Born and raised in the conservative Midwest, she married then spent decades with her husband in Indonesia, China, Portugal and Singapore. As missionaries, the couple engaged in social work and taught English.
“I never played bingo in my life. I thought it was a sin,” Sigafoose said as she prepared for Thursday’s game.
Several years ago, however, Sigafoose changed her mind about the pastime after she retired in Texas and her husband died. A friend suggested the idea of volunteering at the senior center. Sigafoose researched the effects of playing bingo and discovered its assets.
“It’s something for the mind,” she explained. “Bingo for the elderly, well, it keeps their minds going. They have to think, and it’s mind therapy, really.”
After realizing she could provide help and entertainment, free of charge, to fellow residents age 65 and older, Sigafoose mulled the matter over and … bingo!
She decided to volunteer.
Now, Sigafoose keeps all the balls rolling from the beginning to end. She’s the one who shops for the prizes, decorates the tables, operates the machine and keeps the pace of the game lively with jokes.
“She was doing this when I was hired four years ago,” said Patsy Cofer, the center’s activities director.
Cofer explained that volunteers are crucial to the life of the senior center because of its limited revenue.
“We’re nonprofit. That makes these volunteers so important. Without them, I can’t get everything accomplished,” she said.
Local health care and home care groups donate some of the prizes for the games. Sometimes, representatives are curious about operating the big bingo machine, so Sigafoose trains them.
“They like to learn to use the machine, and I like to teach,” she said.
At this game, one of the representatives will be at the machine with Cofer and Sigafoose.
“That way, we have different callers. It’s a variation every time,” said Sigafoose as she made her way to the front of the room to join the other organizers.
“Patsy and I usually do a dog and pony show before,” she added.
The game has begun. She and Cofer station themselves at the machine and begin a dialogue, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon style. Sigafoose is the comedian, and Cofer plays it straight.
“Hey, I got a standing ovation last game,” Sigafoose announces to Cofer and the players. “They all stood up and clapped for me.”
“Well, after she told them to,” Cofer deadpans. Sigafoose grins and shrugs.
The balls begin to whirl. The sound of markers slapping on boards is punctuated constantly by the organizers calling numbers and occasionally by players shouting, “Bingo!”
A few years ago, the regular crowd at the games was about 15 people. Since Sigafoose began volunteering, the number of regulars doubled.
“The folks here, they have a bond with her,” Cofer said.
In spite of increased attendance, Sigafoose still noticed empty chairs in the room during bingo hour.
“A lot of people don’t know that the senior center doesn’t serve just Belton,” she said. “It serves Salado, Killeen, Moody and Troy, too.”
The game pauses as each winner steps up to a table to claim prizes, some of which are living necessities: paper towels and toilet scrubbers; some prizes are the fun and fancy stuff such as decorative knick knacks.
Cofer later explained the reason for the plainer prizes. A portion of the players live in low-income housing and can’t afford basic supplies, let alone entertainment. The bingo games offer both.
Today, Wayne Jackson is one of the bingo winners. He and his wife, Nell, have been coming to the center for more than a decade. Wayne said he is glad Sigafoose chose bingo for her volunteer work.
“She does a good job calling,” he said.