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Big bingo business

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By Todd Martin

If you’re familiar with winning phrases such as postage stamp, four corners, coveralls and big X, or if you know about pull-tab games and how to play 72 cards at once, then you’re a veteran bingo player.

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And if you are, you certainly know the way to Shelby Bingo Plus in Simpsonville.

But what most people don’t know is how much Bingo Plus pumps back into Shelby County.

Each night and each charity differ, but total payouts per night to winners can range from a few thousand dollars to about $5,000.

The bingo parlor is open six nights a week and is staffed by local charities. Kitty Simpson runs the Tuesday and Friday nights to benefit the Dorman Center, Lise Sageser is in charge on Wednesday and Sunday for the Optimist Club and Barbara Zekausky heads up Thursday and Saturday’s operations for the Shelby County Humane Society.

By law, each group can only work bingo two nights a week, but that seems to be plenty to keep the charities rolling.

More than 200 players may turnout for one night’s action. The groups play 19 games a night, and it’s not your normal bingo.

“Nobody plays straight-line bingo anymore,” Sageser said. “It’s all about the different games. And we have some very dedicated players. One sheet has 18 cards on it, and we have some people that will play 36, 54 or even 72 cards at one time.”

Though the play gets serious, the foundations are focused on the bottom line.

Sageser said bingo is a big part of the Optimist Club’s future plans.

“Everybody’s goal is to make money, and ours is for youth projects in the community,” she said. “We want to fund a scholarship, and not a small one. We want to be up there with the Pflughaupt [Scholarship]. We want to make a significant scholarship of thousands or spilt up thousands of dollars to several kids.

“We also want to help the parks with Red Orchard Park, maybe a playground or something that everyone can use.”

Those are lofty goals, but Sageser is sure the Optimist Club can get to that level, following the success of bingo.

“We’re seeing very positive results so far,” she said. “Within two years from now, we’d like to be able to give a respectable scholarship and let it grow from there.”

The amount a group raises can vary from night to night, and groups can even lose money on a given night.

“You might lose money one night, but you’ll more than make it up over the next two,” Sageser said.

Simpson is the longest tenured on the bingo circuit, having spent the last three years working to raise money for the Dorman Center and the four years before that raising money for Kamp Kessa.

“It’s a lot of fun, and it’s something the whole family can do together,” she said. “You have to be 18 to play bingo, but we have games that younger kids can play where they win gift cards.

“It’s not just for old people or young people. We have whole families in here ranging from children to grandparents.”

Simpson, who is also a veteran bingo player herself, said the hard work is very rewarding each week.

“It’s interesting for us, at the end of the night, to look at the bottom line after we paid rent and totaled the pull tabs to see what we raised for our charity. It’s amazing to think we did that in just four hours,” she said.

Simpson said she donates to the Dorman Center because that facility works with kids and need the help.

“It’s not about letting them make big purchases but just about keeping them open and not worrying about the day-to-day expenses. Last year we helped them pay off several debts that still had a lot of years left on them,” she said.

Though these bingo players could be heading over to casino boats in the area, Sageser said it’s that family atmosphere that, in part, keeps them coming back.

“Everybody knows everybody at the games,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun. We’ve only been doing it for about four months, but already we’ve gotten to know players, and we ask about their families, their kids. Everybody is friends.”

Simpson noted how it’s great that local people can win some money and help fund local projects at the same time.

“Anytime you can do something for children, old people or animals, it’s great,” she said. “And to be doing good in your own community, it’s an awesome thing.”