Special Friends Bowling Group knocks down pins and perceptions

Ray Kleczowski organizes weekly games in The Villages

THE VILLAGES, Fla. – People move to The Villages for an active lifestyle, friendship and a community where they feel at home but in some cases, their children might be looking for the same thing.

A group of seniors with dependent children who have special needs meet every Saturday at Spanish Springs Lanes. That’s where we found “Coach Ray” who makes sure everyone is encouraged and meeting their potential.

Ray Kleczowski organizes the Special Friends Bowling Group.

“We’re a fun group, a noisy group and a loving group,” Kleczowski said as he prepared the lanes for the afternoon games. “There are no shortcomings here. This is the way life should be.”

Every Saturday about 20 players show up to try their hand at knocking down pins.

“You can hear all the excitement and comradery that goes on between them,” Kleczowski said, his voice struggling to compete with the sound of crashing pins and yelling parents. “It’s not a competition, it’s fun. They’re here for their friends and to have a good time.”

Lew Simon was there with his son, Scott, 56.

“What Ray has done here for our community is really making a difference,” Simon said, adding that his son looks forward to the meets. It’s where Scott is able to see friends and make new ones.

“It’s something that gets them together socially and gives them something to do physically.”

Simon explained that it’s Kleczowski’s commitment that prompted him to send a nomination for the News 6 Getting Results Award.

“That’s what makes him so special,” he adds.

Judie Frank looked on as her son Michael, 40. bowled on lane three. “Michael doesn’t work at a paying job so this is his chance to get out with people,” Frank said. “It gives them exercise in a protected environment.”

Rosemarie Occhipinti’s cousin Paul, 76, was on the next lane. “Take a look at these kids, people they’re not kids,” Occhipinti catches herself. “Years ago people hid them. Now they’re out in the world. It’s great to show they have personalities and heart and they just want to do what we all do.”

Occhipinti said Paul, like most of the players here just wants to play. They’re not competitive, even with each other.

Ray Kleczowski is this week's Getting Results Award winner. (WKMG-TV)

“He loves to bowl, he loves to be with people,” Occhipinti said. “This is our Saturday, this is what we do.”

It’s what families have been doing for more than 20 years. Kleczowski took over an already established club.

When he moved to Florida, it was a perfect fit for his daughter, Lisa.

“Lucky Lisa they call her,” Kleczowski said with a smile. “She’s my inspiration. She tells my wife and I that God put her here to make us smile and that’s what she’s been doing for 52 years.”

Everyone agrees, the pandemic has been hard on their families who may already suffer from isolation. The group had to take a break from the meet-ups but now they’re back. Kleczowski now splits the group up to reduce the amount of players each week. Men and boys bowl one week and girls and women the next.

“It was heartbreaking to hear the stories,” Kleczowski said. “They couldn’t wait to get back here, chomping at the bit, but as you can see we’re here and having fun.”

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About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.