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A broken bingo machine left this D.C. veterans’ retirement home mourning. A 16-year-old girl decided to help.

Van Hayes, a resident of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in D.C., standing in front of the bingo machine that went haywire last year. He loves calling, but hasn't been able to do it since the bingo machine broke over a year ago. (Amanda Jensema)
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Life hasn’t been the same for Van Hayes since he stopped calling bingo games.

Hayes, a 73-year-old Army veteran who lives in the Armed Forces Retirement Home in D.C., began calling games for other residents about four years ago, a job that suited his booming voice and big personality. He quit in 2018 when the decades-old bingo machine broke and stopped illuminating numbers on its display board.

“Oh, I do miss it,” he said.

Residents have tried to keep playing, attempting workaround solutions — such as a computerized version of bingo — and relying on substitute callers (usually staff), all of which proved less than ideal. Not only is the game more difficult to follow, but players also miss Hayes’s baritone: the way he enunciated the B in B12 or stretched out long Os, said resident Sandra Intorre, 98, another Army veteran.

It’s a problem 16-year-old Sarah Barclay Kershner Nordlinger is determined to fix.

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Nordlinger is raising money to replace the veterans’ bingo machine, a funding drive she launched in late June and will continue until at least the end of the week. On a GoFundMe page, she has set a target of $8,000: enough to cover the new machine, which will cost around $6,000, and buy residents soil and tools for their gardens.

Nordlinger, an Arlington resident and junior at Washington-Liberty High School, said she wants to help the retirement home because her family members are veterans: Her uncle served in the Marines and her grandfather in the Air Force. Plus, Nordlinger knows how important board games and gardening are to her own grandmother, 82-year-old Janet Kershner Barclay.

“My grandma loves playing Boggle, so that’s always something I do with her — it helped both me and my grandma mentally, teaching me new vocab and keeping her mind active,” Nordlinger said. “And we love watering tomato plants together, which she taught me how to do."

“So I wanted to create a place I thought my grandparents would like,” she added, referring to the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

As of Tuesday, Nordlinger had raised roughly $1,700. She is undertaking the fundraiser as president of District of Columbia Children of the American Revolution. Presidents typically complete a charitable project during their year-long tenure.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home, founded in the 1850s and located in Northwest Washington, houses about 280 retirees, all veterans between the ages of 60 and 100, according to Christopher Kelly, the home’s public affairs officer.

Residents have clamored for a new bingo machine ever since the old one broke, but the home has been unable to replace it, according to Ron Kartz, the chief of resident services. The home — funded through residents’ fees, monthly 50-cent deductions from active-duty service members’ payrolls, fines applied to misbehaving service members and congressional appropriations — is often forced to operate on a tight budget, Kelly said.

“We have some difficulty with being able to purchase items that may be ‘nice to have’ versus an immediate need,” Kelly said.

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Soil and gardening supplies also fall into that “nice to have” category, said Amanda Jensema, a recreation therapist at the home. There are two terrace gardens at the home, where residents grow vegetables such as tomatoes, corn and squash, which they use in meals and in group cooking classes.

Gardening and bingo are key forms of physical therapy for residents, according to Jensema. Watering, trimming and harvesting plants makes for good exercise, while bingo allows the veterans to practice “fine motor skills,” she said.

The game has mental benefits, too: “It’s working on their memory and recall,” Jensema said. Studies have shown that regularly engaging in cognitively stimulating activities such as bingo can reduce the likelihood of dementia.

What Intorre and Hayes love most about bingo, in addition to wagering and sometimes winning a few dollars, is the social interaction with other residents, they said. The bingo machine’s lack of functioning has put a damper on what both described as formerly fun, carefree afternoons shared with great friends three times a week.

“It would make life a lot easier if it were fixed,” said Intorre, who attends every bingo session. “I would enjoy it more, I wouldn’t get upset because I can’t see the numbers.”

Without Hayes calling out the game in his loud voice, Intorre often cannot hear what the numbers are, either. Hayes said he plans to start calling games again as soon as the new bingo machine arrives — which residents, staff and Nordlinger hope will happen in October.

“I enjoy it, I enjoy the people,” Hayes said of calling games. “We have a lot of fun when we’re in the right mood in there.”

Lee A. Smith, an 89-year-old resident and Army veteran, sees gardening similarly: as a way to connect with others. He enjoys eating the beans, okra and corn he grows, but he prefers gifting his produce to other residents.

“I like it just to have something to give away,” he said. “Mostly that’s why I do it.”

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Nordlinger said she observed the veterans’ sense of community and warmth when she toured the Armed Forces Retirement Home in early June. After the tour, she decided she would help them get a new bingo machine.

As part of her drive to raise money, Nordlinger is also selling tiny pins she designed, which bears the home’s logo, an eagle, and costs $10.

Nordlinger said she feels inspired by the donations she’s already received — some of them just $5 or $10 — from close friends and total strangers. But she is not surprised.

“Almost everyone has a connection to a veteran in some kind of way, our freedom is because of them,” Nordlinger said. “Everyone can understand this project, whether they live in D.C. or not: It’s a way of thanking those who have put so much into helping us.”

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