By ANGELENA CHAPMAN
Special to the Standard
WEST GREENWICH– Katherine Gent’s classmates may not know everything there is to know about her but they’ll soon learn two important things that make her who she is.
First, Gent is an accomplished bowler. Second, she has rheumatoid arthritis.
For her senior project at Exeter-West Greenwich High School, the 17-year-old resident of West Greenwich hopes she can “use the sport I love to raise money for the disease I live with.”
Diagnosed at age five with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Gent wrote in her proposal to the Senior Project Review Board that she was forced to stop pursuing dance but refused to give up bowling and the importance of the sport in her life will be on full display Sunday as Gent’s Bowl-a-Thon, to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation, is the first part of her two-semester senior project.
Some students are doing the “product” portion of their project second and their research paper first but Gent’s “product” — the bowling event — will be finished before she tackles her research paper.
Co-mentoring her on the project is her stepmother Crystal Hagemoser, of Exeter, and Renay Houle, of Warwick, who has also had rheumatoid arthritis since she was a child.
Hagemoser said she has been the “event-mentor” and Houle is mentoring Gent for the paper.
Gent’s research question will be “What are the causes and effects of rheumatoid arthritis?”
The analytical portion will be Gent’s personal judgments and will analyze what she believes are find to treatments of the disease.
“Arthritis strikes at any age,” Houle said, adding that when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1976, the prescription was “bed rest.”
Through breakthrough drugs in the early 1980’s and late 1990’s, sometimes you can’t even tell which child in a family has rheumatoid arthritis, Houle said, adding that early diagnosis and early treatment are especially critical.
Houle has had 21 surgeries and has been told by doctors that had she been diagnosed four years later in 1980, “my whole life would have been different.”
“The damage,” she explained, “is being done early on.”
For 25 years, Houle has been involved with the Arthritis Foundation, appearing at speaking engagements, fundraisers and now as the representative for New England.
According to its website, the Arthritis Foundation is “the largest national nonprofit organization solely dedicated to the prevention, control and cure of arthritis,”, what they call, “the nation’s leading cause of disability.”
Arthritis tends to come “second to other diseases,” Houle said. “People don’t realize what it can do to you [physically] and cost wise. You can die from complications related to arthritis.”
The Arthritis Foundation said it believes “the heavy toll arthritis takes is unacceptable, and that arthritis must be taken as seriously as other chronic diseases because of the its devastating consequences.”
It is “something you have for a long period of time, not something you’re cured of,” Houle said, even though an individual can go into remission.
For Gent, it all began with an ear infection. After discovering that there were sports in gym class she couldn’t do, Gent also had to quit both dance and jazz.
Gent said she didn’t have a huge “desire” to get involved with another sport but she still had bowling and this encouragement to stay active is yet another example of how times have changed.
When Houle was young, she said, she had a note for gym class, had to elevate her leg if it was ever swollen, was on crutches and even in a wheelchair at one point.
Even the treatments Gent has been on have been different than those Houle encountered.
Hagemoser, meanwhile, has coached the EWG senior in bowling for years and says she sees her affected even less now by the disease.
“I try not to let it get to me,” Gent said.
“When you grow up with pain, you don’t know what pain is,” Houle said, “I don’t know what I do differently.”
Houle has been coordinating the printing for the event with Bank Rhode Island, where she works, and the Arthritis Foundation, and so far the costs for the Bowl-a-Thon are “absolutely zero,” Hagemoser said.
Mark Meiklejohn, the president and CEO of Bank Rhode Island, is a resident of Exeter and has had three children complete senior projects at the high school.
“[Houle] is a terrific example of what many Bank RI employees do,” he said, “This is the second or third time she has done this.
“We encourage all our employees to volunteer and participate in things important to them—things they find fulfilling. It makes us a better company and our employees more well-rounded.”
“The students,” he added, “are able to explore an area of interest that they might not otherwise be able to.”
“We are big into the bowling community,” Gent said. Both she and Hagemoser have been involved in the sport since they were four or five-years old. They are in numerous leagues and bowl out of Kingstown Bowl on Post Road in North Kingstown.
Hagemoser wanted to point out what a great deal three hours of bowling for only $20 is and it includes shoes.
There will also be a bake sale and a raffle of donated items at the event.
Even the 32 lanes, or half the “house” as they say at the bowling alley, have been donated by AMF Cranston Bowl for the event Sunday afternoon.
The Bowl-a-Thon is this Sunday, Oct. 28 from 1-4 p.m. at AMF Cranston Bowl, 1450 Elmwood Ave., Cranston.
It is “first come, first serve,”, with unlimited bowling for $20. Kids 12-years-old and under can play for $20 and the prices includes free shoe rental.