"We set out on a mission to raise awareness because we didn't want any other families to be blindsided," says Julie Hutchison, president of the foundation created after her daughter's death. "We knew we needed to do something, because it's really who she was. She lit up a room when she walked in, and she was always worried about the underdog and people who were sad. We knew we had to keep her memory alive by doing something."
The Chelsea Hutchison Foundation now works to educate people about SUDEP and raise funds to provide potentially life-saving monitors and seizure response dogs for people with epilepsy. The twice-weekly games raise funds for that work and provide an alternative to competing for grant funding with larger nonprofits. Bingo is a popular funding mechanism for smaller nonprofits, Julie says, but the organizations often run into roadblocks created by the state's antiquated rules governing bingo in Colorado.
Those rules date back to 1958, when a statewide vote legalized bingo and raffles, enshrining authorized games of chance and lotteries in the Colorado Constitution under Title 24, Article 21, Part 6. The Colorado Secretary of State oversees compliance with the rules; among other things, they specify that bingo games can only be held by licensed nonprofits and must be run by volunteers.
Chelsea's father is typically the caller who runs the foundation's games; volunteers usually work the concessions stand. Because some people with seizure disorders aren’t able to calculate change but still want to volunteer, the foundation added a twist to the games: a raffle in which people could buy tickets to earn a buzzer. Anyone with a ticket could then pick a number between one and seventy; if that number was called during the regular bingo game, the player would hit the buzzer and a volunteer would bring over $5.
“It lightened the atmosphere,” recalls Julie. “We’d been doing it for a while, and then we got word from the state that we couldn't do that anymore.”
Because the buzzer raffle essentially created a second-chance drawing during a single game, the Secretary of State's Office said it wasn't allowed, pointing to the hefty "Bingo-Raffles Law Handbook" that interprets the rules of charitable gaming. And that wasn't the only time that the foundation's attempts to introduce innovations had been stymied.
“A player will make a recommendation on the game and we'll be all excited about it,” Julie says. “Then I’ll call the Secretary of State and they go, ‘Oh, that's not allowed in Colorado.’ And there's no real reason why it's not. … There's no reason other than it's not in our rules, but changing the rules is an act of God, practically.”
Amendment F, a provision that would have changed some of the rules in the state constitution governing bingo, among them lifting the prohibition against paying those who run the games.
Skilled workers create more lucrative games, according to the Colorado Charitable Bingo Association. Richard Lemon is a vice president of the CCBA; he's also general manager of Rocky Mountain Bingo Supply, which sells bingo supplies across the Rocky Mountain region, including in New Mexico and Wyoming, where rules aren't as restrictive as they are in Colorado.
"There's a lot less rules and regulations," Lemon says. "They seem to be able to make more money on an annual basis than we do. They are able to pay workers. Nonprofits are able to run bingo more like a business."
In Colorado, the only entities eligible for charitable gaming licenses for bingo are registered nonprofits that have existed for five or more years. According to the Secretary of State's Office, 879 organizations are currently licensed to run games. But under the law, the people running those games can't be paid or even reimbursed for travel time.
“No commission, salary, compensation, reward, or recompense can be paid to any person for holding, operating, or conducting bingo games,” reads the Secretary of State’s Bingo FAQ page. “This includes items like free sodas or snacks, tips, or anything of value given to a worker in exchange for working a bingo occasion. The proceeds must always be used for the group’s charitable purpose as stated in their articles, charter or by-laws.”
The only allowable form of compensation? One meal worth under $10 per shift.
While the Chelsea Hutchison Foundation doesn't have trouble finding good volunteers, Julie says she knows of other nonprofits that have problems finding people to work games. She'd also like to be able to pay some of the young adults who help out her foundation's games and can't hold a paying job because their epilepsy requires that they stay close to caregivers.
“It would be life-changing for them to be able to be compensated in some manner, to give them the purpose of a job and restore that responsibility in a really, really safe environment for them,” she says, noting that there’s always someone who knows how to respond to a seizure at foundation events.
gambling have been approved in the state, including the Colorado Lottery, casinos, off-track betting on horse races, and sports betting. Social gambling between friends with no profit motive is also allowed. But the only significant change to bingo games since 1958 has been the addition of electronic cards to improve accessibility.
The CCBA would like to see the rules governing bingo moved from the Colorado Constitution to state statute, which governs all of the other gambling options.
“Colorado is very receptive to gambling,” says Corky Kyle, a lobbyist for the CCBA who also serves as its vice president. “All of those other venues have the ability to make changes more quickly without having to change the constitution. They do it through the regulatory boards that have oversight of them. … Unfortunately, bingo is the one that's been left out.”
The Colorado Lottery was created in 1983, after the Colorado Legislature put a proposal to allow it on the statewide ballot. Gambling proponents landed the Colorado Limited Gaming Initiative on the 1990 ballot; it called for an amendment to the state constitution that would allow casinos to open in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek and make oversight of those casinos a statutory issue. Voters approved the measure and have okayed updates to it since, expanding hours and the size of bets, among other things.
In 2019, the legislature put Proposition DD on the ballot to legalize sports betting online and at casinos under the statutory and regulatory authority of the Colorado Division of Gaming. Voters approved that, too.
“The other industries realize that they have to meet the needs of their players and, in order to meet the needs of the players, they've got to have flexibility through the regulatory process and the legislative process,” Kyle says.
Bingo doesn’t have that flexibility. Instead, it has the Colorado Bingo-Raffle Advisory Board, whose nine members are appointed by the president of the Colorado Senate and the Speaker of the House. According to Kyle, the board isn't particularly powerful, because it can only make recommendations, not decisions.
The board can conduct market studies, though, which it last did in 2017. That bingo and raffle study found that bingo isn’t doing well, with both revenues and profit margins decreasing as the game has struggled to retain both consistent volunteers and players. And it needs to reach a new audience in order to supplement the aging population that typically plays bingo, the study noted.
“A lot of my closest friends, they still don't know what I do,” says Lemon, who has been in the bingo industry for decades. “They haven't been to bingo and probably never will. They still think it's all down in the church basement. Every time we do something different, it does help. It does create profitability.”
Amendment F would have reduced the amount of time an organization has to be in existence as a registered nonprofit before applying for a license from five years to three. It also would have repealed the ban on paying managers and operators of charitable gaming activities. Under F, those workers could have been paid minimum wage until 2024, at which point the legislature could determine whether any changes needed to be made.
Amendment F went down, though, as did a similar proposal in 2020 that called for paying workers but did not include a provision to move decision-making to the legislature. Both measures were referred to the ballot by the legislature with bipartisan support.
Before pushing for the amendments, the CCBA had tried to negotiate with the Secretary of State’s Office to allow paid callers for games, but was told the rule couldn’t be changed without a vote of the people since it is in the Colorado Constitution. That helped inspire the push for Amendment F.
“In order to get any significant change, you have to change the constitution," Lemon says. "Right or wrong, a lot of people don't like that. We're kind of small potatoes. It's nonprofits, so there's not a whole lot of money to be made running election campaigns.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars, which argued that the proposed changes would create the same kinds of problems the casino industry now faces; the VFW warned that out-of-state companies would profit off Coloradans and take all the benefits for themselves while making it impossible for small and local players to stay in the game.
According to Bruce Dolan, the state adjutant and quartermaster for the VFW Department of Colorado, charitable gaming is the lifeblood for many VFW posts across the state, which use bingo and raffles to finance their work, including providing grave and memorial services for veterans. “You get outside entities coming into the state, and they start having bigger and bigger prizes than any of the nonprofits could afford to match,” Dolan says.
That's simply not the case, responds the CCBA.
“They're very dedicated members, and the posts serve a very valuable purpose in all of those communities, but their arguments were incorrect,” says Kyle. “They still have to be vetted by the Colorado Secretary of State. They have to get a license. There are rules and regulations and oversight on all those people. That was a red herring. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
He suggests that the VFW's position "was very selfish and very shortsighted...because the VFW isn’t the only one that has a bingo license. All those other groups are penalized by virtue of what was done, so they really disrupted the industry by taking that position.”
The CCBA will continue to push for change. Lemon plans to reach out to VFW leaders and try to work with them. The posts would benefit from paid workers at their games, too, he says.
The Secretary of State's Office did not take a position on Amendment F. But on January 17, it will hold a public rulemaking hearing on some updates to bingo and raffle law that made it through the 2022 legislative session and did not require a vote of the public. The bill was sponsored by representatives Karen McCormick and Perry Will and senators Jim Smallwood and Rachel Zenzinger; it updated definitions of bingo to include "bingo strip card games" and clarified prize limits. It also suggested new rules for bingo administration regarding equipment and increased electronic accessibility capabilities.
“There's not a whole lot of promise for positive change that would really affect our market in a positive way," says Lemon, who adds that the CCBA will still be involved in rulemaking efforts.
The organization is also assessing how to push for smaller actions that would help bring bingo into the modern age, since statewide ballot measures calling for sweeping reforms just don’t seem to be winners with the electorate.
One of those efforts could include educating people about where the money from charitable gaming goes. “It’s a more worthwhile endeavor than just some rich guy's pockets,” Lemon points out, noting that the proceeds are about helping others, not profit.
And proceeds have been dwindling since the pandemic hit. The Chelsea Hutchison Foundation games used to draw between seventy and ninety players, according to Julie. These days, games attract fifty or sixty people — and that's after the foundation cut prices to incentivize players to come back.
In 2021, the foundation raised about $105,000 through bingo. In 2019, it raised $120,000.
“For a small nonprofit that has very little overhead compared to others, that's a lot of money,” she says. “We can do a lot of good with that. Bingo has been huge for us. ... It can be really life-changing for a family that is already stressed to the max.”