how a “bowling against breast cancer” idea turned into contributions totaling $600,000 to support staten island health projects
by jessica jones-gorman • photos © amessé photography
On more than a couple of occasions, Frank Wilkinson has been caught pink-handed. Armed with boxes of lawn signs and a carful of fluorescent pink flamingos, the owner of Rab’s Country Lanes has been nabbed by such borough notables as Richard Nicotra and Jon Salmon as he politely vandalized their properties with flocks of the obnoxiously adorable bird. Still, as Wilkinson points out, it was all for a good cause.
“It was a cute way of hounding people for a check,” Wilkinson said with a laugh. “Year after year, we seek donations for our Bowling for Breast Cancer fundraiser, and flocking local businesses with these birds not only helped us do that, it helped create a buzz, too. Any kind of awareness that we can help stir up is a good thing when battling something as big as breast cancer.”
The idea, which involves a crew of Rab’s employees splashing several local businesses with plastic pink lawn ornaments, was the brainchild of Nazareth Laursen, a longtime employee of Rab’s and a member of Wilkinson’s extended work family.
“Naz found out that a friend had breast cancer, and her response was, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ But then, that’s just the type of person she is she’s always looking for a way to help,” Wilkinson said. “She heard of a story of someone raising money by flocking people’s lawns with these pink flamingos. Next thing I know I’m on Amazon, ordering them in sets of two-hundred.”
The flamingos help promote Rab’s annual Bowling Against Breast Cancer bowl-a-thon, which has raised more than $600,000 for Staten Island Breast Health Projects over the past 17 years. After gaining some “Tag, you’re it!” momentum from local businesses, the flamingo stunt alone raised $11,000 last year in just about a month’s time. “It was fun, and people responded really well to it,” Wilkinson said, adding that this is just one of the many fund-raising initiatives he’s been supporting for decades with the Rab Wilkinson Foundation.
“Our business is to provide an outlet for people to get away from their everyday life,” he explained. “We supply an environment where people come to enjoy themselves, knock down a couple of pins and some drinks, and escape their daily stresses. But we couldn’t do what we do without the community that surrounds us. It was instilled in me by my father and my grandfather before him to always take care of those who take care of you.”
That’s why Wilkinson forged a relationship with Staten Island University Hospital, helping to fund local breast health projects with the proceeds from the annual bowl-a-thon, including the Florina Rusi Marke Comprehensive Breast Center.
“Our relationship started flourishing with the hospital because we have so many friends and clients who work there,” Wilkinson said. “SIUH is our community hospital anyone who’s ill or has a family member who’s ill walks through those doors to seek care. So to support an organization that is such a major part of the borough’s infrastructure is just common sense.”
After raising money for the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides program, Wilkinson chose to continue supporting the breast cancer cause.
“Five years ago, we made a contribution to SIUH’s Comprehensive Breast Center as plans for that initiative were just getting off the ground,” he said. “And in an effort to continue to grow this partnership, we made a $100,000 commitment to the Breast Health Navigation Program last year.”
Now in its third year of operation, SIUH’s BHNP works to improve access to screenings, treatment, and care in high-risk areas of Staten Island’s North Shore one of the borough’s most medically underserved areas. The program focuses its activities on reaching vulnerable populations those affected by late-stage diagnosis and disproportionately high breast cancer mortality rates through outreach and educational events.
“When patients do have to enter the doors of the Comprehensive Breast Center for treatment, or when they do have to make use of the hospital’s Breast Health Navigation Program, they can do it knowing they have the support of fellow Staten Islanders who have raised this money for them,” Wilkinson said. “It’s this type of community outreach that the Rab’s business was built upon.”
Rab’s Country Lanes, which will be celebrating its 25th year this coming February, was the lifelong vision of Wilkinson’s father, Rab.
“He started as a pin boy and always dreamed of building his own business,” he said. “He sold sporting equipment at pro shops in Westerleigh and Dongan Hills before landing in Grant City on Lincoln Avenue, where he opened Rab’s Pro Shop. He took ownership of Bowling on the Green in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and when the opportunity came up to buy Country Lanes, he took it.”
Wilkinson went on to describe growing up in the bowling business: Living in an apartment that was upstairs from the family’s Pro Shop on Lincoln Avenue, both he and his brothers, Thomas and Anthony, were hardly strangers to the establishment their father worked so hard to create.
“I guess you could say we were born with bowling balls in our hands,” he laughed. “And as teenagers, we started taking on an active role, helping dad clean up, running youth tournaments, or just working somewhere in the center.”
After Wilkinson’s father was diag – nosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2005, he was forced to do much of his work from home. So Wilkinson, who had just graduated from high school, started taking on a more active role.
“My mother, Dee, ran the business with him for decades. I stepped in to help her,” he said. “When my father passed away in 2008, I took on the full-time job of operating things with her.”
That full-time position included continuing his father’s charitable work.
“Every community comes together in times of crisis, but Staten Islanders are exceptionally giving,” he concluded. “We have half a million residents here which is a lot but it never ceases to amaze me how small this borough seems. Residents continually put each other first and take care of those who are less fortunate. They make my job of fundraising easy, and because of this community, we are able to continually give back.”
Rab’s Country Lanes
1600 Hylan Boulevard / 718.979.1600