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‘We aren’t letting him take that away from us’: Lewiston bowlers say alley is like home

Recovering and rebuilding in Lewiston
WATCH: Reporter Samantha J. Gross is back from Maine to share her experiences and look ahead at the healing process.

See the Globe’s complete coverage of the Maine shootings.

LEWISTON, Maine — For decades, Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings have been treasured times at the only bowling alley in town.

That’s when children would file in, lace up their shoes, and have fun with friends for a few hours during sessions reserved for them at Just-in-Time Recreation.

To the uninitiated, it looks like any other bowling alley, with vintage carpeting, fluorescent lighting, and neon balls lined up ready to roll.

But for generations of bowlers, the 22 lanes are home.

It’s where birthdays are celebrated, trophies are won, and charity events collect canned food for the local food pantry.

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It’s where volunteer coach Bob Violette pointed his laser to help the youth league players roll that perfect strike, and where his wife, Lucy, greeted families with homemade cookies and brownies. It’s where high school students came to stay out of trouble, and perfect a sport that allows them travel beyond Maine, to competitions in Indiana and Michigan.

But that home was shattered Wednesday, when a gunman fired a rifle at those gathered for the weekly youth league practice, ultimately killing eight — Bob and Lucy Violette, Michael Deslauriers, Jason Walker, Thomas Conrad, Tricia Asselin, and Bill Young and his 14-year-old son, Aaron, a high school freshman who played in the league. He then went on to kill 10 more at a nearby bar.

Seeing the surveillance photo of the shooter, Robert Card II, walking through the doors of the building — an image that has been flashed on television repeatedly since Wednesday — feels to many in Lewiston like a violation of a safe space, a family space.

Every time she sees it, 12-year-old Elizabeth Boynton says to her mother: “I hate that picture.”

But even so, they plan to go back.

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“Bowling has been our Saturday mornings for 11 years,” said Angie Boynton, who drives Elizabeth and her son, Wyatt, 45 minutes from Augusta to bowl. “We aren’t letting him take that away from us.”

Over the years, families have cultivated groups of “bowling friends,” familiar faces from other school districts or towns. Parents have watched each other’s kids grow up, and built deep relationships with the other parents and coaches.

Children as young as 4 or 5 can bowl in the youth league, which has teams all the way up to age 18.

There were tournaments where the children bowled against their coaches, or against their parents and grandparents.

“It’s wonderful,” Boynton, 43, said. “The more people who love your kids, the better. I love being able to watch the kids improve year after year, watching their averages go up and up and up.”

To some, the bowling alley has been a salvation.

“I went to Lewiston High School and was part of a gang,” said Isaiah Smith, who took an interest in bowling per the recommendation of Bob Violette. The coach’s grandson was a classmate of his. “He kept me from dying, probably.”

When Smith’s mother moved out of state, another coach took him in and gave him a safe place to stay. Even though he has outgrown the youth league, he still practices with the kids every Wednesday night. Smith, now 20, said Just-in-Time is “a family place.”

He was on his way there Wednesday when he heard news of the shooting on the radio.

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“Everybody there is from town, we all know each other,” said Smith, who now lives in nearby Monmouth. “It’s a good place to go and hang out.”

Zeke Allard, 8, and his sister Lucy Allard, 5, played with a heart balloon in front of Just-In-Time Recreation, part of a memorial to honor victims of the recent Lewiston shootings. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Will Bourgault, 51, grew up at the bowling alley. He bowled in the youth league every Saturday morning from age 7 to 18. His uncle, Thomas Giberti, was the longtime manager. He has stepped back from the role in recent months, but happened to stop by Wednesday night to help out and watch the youth league bowl.

Giberti was in a room behind the lanes fetching a screwdriver when he saw flashes of light and heard screaming. He hustled as many children as he could gather out the back door before he collapsed in the doorway, with four bullets in his left leg and three in his right.

He’s undergone multiple surgeries and faces a long road of extensive rehabilitation but by Saturday, he was already home and on his feet with the help of a walker, his nephew said.

And soon enough, he’ll return to his bowling community.

For now, the hulking gray building, which is set back from the road in a quiet office park, is frozen in time.

Cars that had parked there Wednesday night sit idle in their spots. Some people returned to gather their belongings on Saturday, but the building — still an active crime scene — remains closed.

Jen Cote, 20, bowls in the adult league on Sundays and Tuesday, but started bowling in the youth league at 3 years old. She said to her Just-in-Time is home. And she plans to go back.

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“It’s devastating news thinking that the day could have actually happened,” she said. “It was definitely something that will never be forgotten.”

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Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.