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Grotto members adjust to smaller building

The members, who are affiliated with the Masons, hold their program for adults with cerebral palsy at the new location.

By CAROL LOVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- A year ago, volunteers and the cerebral palsy patients they work with said goodbye to their huge old lodge, the Selama Grotto on Arlington Avenue N, where they had met every Thursday for food and fellowship for more than two decades.

Declining membership and high overhead led the group to sell the lodge and move to a new location, 3000 16th St. N. Last week, the lodge members, who are affiliated with the Masons, held their morning-out program at the new place, which has 5,100 square feet compared to the 8,600 of the old Grotto.

"Excuse me" is an oft-heard phrase as everyone gets used to maneuvering electric wheelchairs and serving lunches in a smaller environment. But there is still a good-sized Masonic meeting room, a large dining room and a big kitchen for cooking potluck dinners for the lodge on Friday nights and for putting together special lunches on Thursdays.

Last Thursday, Eric Biggs lined up his ball and sized up the space between himself and the pins. All 10 pins in the frame fell down, and scorekeeper Harold Malone marked down a strike. The players in this bowling league are adults in various stages of cerebral palsy, and those running the "alley" are all retiree volunteers from the Masonic lodge and their spouses.

The Masons have rigged up a bowling lane atop a banquet table -- just the right height for those bowling from their wheelchairs. The pins are bright multicolored plastic. The ball is also plastic and small enough to accommodate the variation in each person's grip and strength.

"They come here and cut loose and have a good time," said the Grotto treasurer, Gary Edenburn.

A health care company bought the Arlington Avenue property and, after extensive remodeling, opened an outpatient dialysis center there.

"Our building down there was too big. We were a slave to the building. It was great when we had 700 members, but we don't have 700 members now," Edenburn said. The Grotto now has 93 members. Wanda Coffee, who can communicate only by eye movements, gazed upward (her way of saying "yes") when asked if she liked the new facility. Coffee is the only participant, of the dozen regulars, whose parents are still involved in her care. Although she lives in Gulfview Nursing Home, her parents take care of her daily needs.

As usual, her father, Clarence, was beside his daughter on Thursday.

"I can't say enough good things about this place," Clarence Coffee said of the new Grotto.

The Grotto is a more sociable offshoot of the Masons. Although only Masons can join, it is not considered a Masonic order. It was formed in New York just before the turn of the century as a place where Masons could play and socialize. Drinking and the like are not allowed in a formal Masonic lodge. The Grotto has always committed itself to the twin causes of cerebral palsy and dentistry for the handicapped.

Caused by a brain injury during fetal development or near birth, cerebral palsy is a disability that manifests itself with muscular incoordination and speech disturbances. It may or may not impair intellectual function.

Masons had expected to expand the morning-out program after moving to the new Grotto.

"We're hoping to do a little more with them (the morning-out group)," said volunteer Ellen Griffith. "(But) we're only meeting two times a month. We're having problems with transportation." The Masons have met four times a month in the past.

Griffith and her husband, Lee, who is the treasurer for the cerebral palsy program, explained that the county will no longer subsidize the wheelchair transportation for those in the morning-out program. That development is not related to the move. The Grotto Masons now pay to rent the special vans, but with the extra expense -- $250 a day -- they have had to cut the program back to twice a month.

But the cutback didn't seem to affect anyone's mood Thursday. There were many whoops of laughter as pins went flying. Betty Hancock was laughing so hard at Grotto member Ernie Thompson's antics with a stuffed lizard that she had to pause a moment or two before rolling her bowling ball.

The morning's festivities were capped off with a spaghetti luncheon and ice cream for dessert. For many of the bowlers, this is the only break from institutional food. The Grotto volunteers serve the lunch to everyone and help those who have trouble feeding themselves.

At the end of the morning, Eric Biggs, the victor of the day's 10 sets of bowling, sat enjoying his double helping of ice cream.

"I consider these people like adoptive parents. It's obvious they care about everyone here in the room. I guess the right word is love -- or compassion. They pay for transportation out of their own pockets. They cook good food for us, and this is all volunteer. The people who live in a nursing home need an outlet like this," said Biggs, one of the few participants who lives independently.

He adds, "I don't just come for the bowling. I come for the friendship and messing around."

More volunteers are needed for the morning-out program. Those interested should call 544-6436 and leave a message. It is not necessary to be a lodge member to help in the project.

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