BROOKSVILLE — Her face illuminated by the dim glow of a computer screen, Helen Gregg maneuvers her fingers over a keyboard in the hope of scoring points, and perhaps hitting the $250,000 jackpot shown on a screen overhead.
It's late morning and she's the only customer in the newly opened 50-seat sweepstakes cafe inside the wood-paneled home of Disabled American Veterans Post 67.
"I've come here a few times," said Gregg. "I'll put $20 in, that's all. If I win something it's great. If I don't, it's okay. I only do it for fun."
Not that long ago, bingo ruled the DAV hall. Three times a week, the building tucked off Cortez Boulevard west of Brooksville was a magnet for diehard gamers, who sat elbow to elbow for hours praying for their numbers to hit.
But while it may have been fun and games for the patrons, such wasn't the case for the DAV, which, according to post vice commander Ken Fagan, was losing money sponsoring the games. The post canceled its bingo sessions in September. "Bingo just died out for us," Fagan said. "We had to make some changes to bring in more revenue. Otherwise we probably weren't going to be here much longer."
The need to raise money to keep the organization's doors open has never been more dire, Fagan said. Still reeling from $80,000 in damage and cleanup costs caused last year when the building's septic system failed, the organization got more bad news this summer when heavy flooding from Tropical Storm Debby damaged the building's foundation and caused large sinkholes in the parking lot.
Assistant post commander Ken Cotton said that while the organization was able to resume bingo a few weeks later, the crowds were never the same because of a lack of parking. "Things just snowballed on us," said Cotton said, who also is a veterans counselor at the post. "We were very close to filing for bankruptcy. Some members were taking money out of their own pocket to help us stay afloat."
Established during the early 1950s, DAV Post 67 is among the oldest veterans groups in Hernando County. Each year, the nonprofit organization assists between 800 and 900 veterans with free counseling to help them obtain benefits they are due.
In addition, the organization maintains a contingency fund to assist eligible veterans during short-term emergencies with electric and utility bills, food and medicines. However, Cotton explained, the fund has been all but depleted.
"Not being able to provide that help hurts," he said. "A lot of people depend on us."
Florida DAV executive director Al Linden said the Brooksville post's financial situation isn't unlike that of many other DAV posts these days. The prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a growing number of combat veterans in search of jobs and help in obtaining benefits.
"The need has continued to grow, but community support hasn't kept up," Linden said. "People sometimes forget that local DAV chapters are there to help fill a gap that other government agencies can't quickly provide."
Fagan said that although the sweepstakes games are beginning to attract more customers, the organization still needs to look at other streams of revenue if it wants to prosper. He and his son recently donated equipment from their former sports memorabilia framing business to the post. The post is also looking at starting a small deli-style restaurant inside the headquarters.
"We're learning that we have to diversify if we want to survive," Fagan said.
"We want this organization to be financially strong long after we're gone. A lot of people depend on us being here."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]