Tech

Game-Changing Charity Plays Up Virtual Reality Experiences

Best friends founded Gamer’s Gift, a California-based nonprofit using video games and virtual reality to promote well-being and positive spirits, particularly among people with disabilities, seniors and hospital-bound and/or ill patients.

3/2/2018

Some critics say video games are a waste of time. To the contrary, studies have found video games can improve hand-eye coordination, strategic thinking skills and teamwork. For 19-year-old Dillon Hill and 20-year-old Chris Betancourt, video games provide “joy and escape.” These best friends founded Gamer’s Gift, a California-based nonprofit using video games and virtual reality to promote well-being and positive spirits, particularly among people with disabilities, seniors and hospital-bound and/or ill patients.

It all began with Chris’ leukemia diagnosis. “I was in the hospital every single day as my best friend, Chris, battled cancer in fifth grade, and video games were a great opportunity for us to escape the hospital room and enter a virtual world,” Dillon tells AmeriDisability. In high school, the two faced more heartache when Chris’ sister, who was also Dillon’s girlfriend, died from suicide. Once again, the friends turned to gaming to grapple. Then, they pondered the potential of this coping mechanism. “I wanted to create something that could help other people in the same way. So, sitting in my high school English class with Chris, we decided to Google ‘how to start a nonprofit,’” Dillon recalls.  

In just two years since the duo established Gamer’s Gift, the organization has raised more than $50,000 and engaged thousands of individuals. “Most of our energy goes to providing virtual reality experiences to children in the hospital, assisted living facilities and people with disabilities. These groups all lack opportunity in some way, usually due to physical or mental limitations. With virtual reality, they can experience new things, like traveling across the world, scuba diving or riding roller coasters from their hospital bed or wheelchair,” Dillon explains.

Gamer's Gift charity working with a boy to play videos game from his wheelchair

Gamer’s Gift has donated equipment and games to several sites. Plus, Dillon, Chris and their small team of fellow young adults travel to various facilities to foster gaming and/or virtual reality sessions. Bethany Sowell, Philanthropy Content Specialist at Valley Children’s Healthcare says, “Gamer’s Gift is a great group to work with. They have brought hours of joy to our patients by providing video equipment but, more importantly, they have given the gift of the time they spend with our patients.”

Gamer’s Gift is showcasing how immersive technology can allow anyone to experience just about anything. “You think of a body that’s not cooperating, but your mind is there and you’re having all these hopes and dreams and wanting to do things,” Chris Dorsey, Director for UCP of Sacramento’s Adult Growth Experience Day Program, shared in a Sacramento Bee article, adding, “Virtual reality is a window to get them out of their chair. An opportunity to do things and see things, learn things.” Through virtual reality goggles, UCP’s participants, who have cerebral palsy, experience the adrenaline rush of thrill rides and the calm of swimming alongside dolphins and tropical fish. Similarly, at Atria Carmichael Oaks, an assisted living community, senior residents braved ski slopes, and one 94-year-old tenant named Tony traveled to Rome, New York. He hadn’t visited his hometown for two decades and never thought he’d be back; but Gamer’s Gift transported him home using mapping technology and specialty eyewear. Gamer’s Gift has touched the lives of many, like Dominic, a paraplegic who drove full speed in a race car and Charlie, who learned to maneuver the game remote with his feet because he doesn’t have hand mobility. Colette Case, Child Life Coordinator at George Mark Children’s House, which provides pediatric palliative care, and her team humbly explain, “Using the virtual reality helps the patients forget about being in the hospital and gives them an opportunity to have some fun. It also helps them with their pain control because they are focusing on something else.”

Virtual reality benefits gamers with disabilities

In October 2017, Chris told Dillon that his cancer had returned and doctors cautioned that he may only live another year. During that emotional call, Chris uttered,“I’m afraid I won't be able to experience the things I want to in life.”Dillon, a double major at the University of California, Davis, immediately withdrew from college to embark on a bucket list endeavor with his best friend. On their new website, MyBestFriendsList.com, the pair chronicles their attempts at 127 (and counting) bucket list goals. They’ve already flown a plane, gotten matching tattoos, met Danny Devito, fed the homeless and more. There’s much left to experience, like visit Japan, help a homeless person find a job and brave a blind date. And Chris is looking for a bone marrow donor that could perhaps offer him a life-saving reboot. This very personal passion project has not distracted Chris and Dillon from their purposeful efforts at Gamer’s Gift.

Gamer’s Gift also hosts game night events and conventions. The organization accepts both financial and equipment donations. For more information, visit GamersGift.org.

Article photos courtesy of Gamer's Gift.

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