“We used to do prizes,” Kathy notes, “but we’ve all got more stuff than we need.”
Carmen Picazo and Sandra Alvarado of El Centro created their bunko group in 2002. Close friends since they were 10 years old, the women had a ready-made set of women to invite. They include high school friends, in-laws, and even the occasional daughter substituting.
“It gives us a chance to get together,” Carmen says. “Otherwise, we just couldn’t make the time for each other.”
She is the veteran of the game and played with another group for years before deciding to start her own. One day, Sandra called Carmen to wish her a happy birthday and was shocked to find out she wasn’t home celebrating her special day but playing bunko instead.
“This bunko thing must be really good,” Sandra remembers telling herself. “I must be missing out on something.”
At Sandra’s urging, the two friends invited everyone to her house where Carmen taught them the game during an orientation night. The rest is history. Members rarely miss a night, and substitutions are rare.
“We even show up sick,” Sandra laughs. “If I’m not feeling well, I can stay at home by myself, or choose to come here and be with friends.” Later, she comments, “Some of us go back a long, long way, and that’s what makes it so special.”
They use a large cowbell with a red ribbon tied to it to signal the end of rounds, just to be sure everyone can hear it. Their theme nights include St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas, during which members forego buying each other gifts, but instead, take up donations to give to needy families.
On Carmen’s night to host, her husband Joe manned the barbecue, cooking tri-tip for dinner. Their spouses are very supportive of their wives’ hobby.
“A lot of husbands will cook, some bartend and serve us, and then they’ll jump in to play if necessary,” Sandra says.
While some of the groups have incorporated their husbands into the game by instituting a couples night, or asking them to substitute, the experience has not always been positive, they say. Usually, the men take the game too seriously and become fiercely competitive during the rounds, changing the tone of the night.
Like the Brawley group, Sandra says it’s unimportant who wins or loses. “We’re lucky the women in our group are not petty. We’re just so happy to play and have good times together.”
Carmen’s daughter, Lisa Mayo, will substitute for her mom’s group, but she usually plays with a younger set of women who work as teachers at McCabe Elementary School.
Scheduling their bunko nights on Friday or Saturday makes it easier for them to squeeze it into their already hectic week, she explains.
With most of the women in their group in their early to mid-thirties, they use bunko for a short break from their kids and husbands.
“It’s fun. We play the game and win money,” Lisa says.
Natalie Erickson of Imperial and Beatrice Hashem of El Centro are in a relatively new group that has been playing for about three years now. Several of their members were with other circles in the Valley when they opted to start their own on the third Thursday of each month.
Most of the women have children ages 10 and under, so they welcome the chance to go out with their friends and relax, Natalie adds.
“Our motivation is to have a nice night out,” she admits. “It’s the social aspect of it.”
Last year, Natalie’s group adopted a new twist to their games by setting up a basket to collect donations throughout the year. Proceeds exceeded $600, and they decided to give half to a needy family and the other half was donated to a local charity.
“We’re all privileged to have all that we have,” she says. “This is a way to give back.”
And they have great fun together while they do it.