When Dillon Hill was in fifth grade, his best friend Chris was diagnosed with leukemia. He watched, helpless, as his friend struggled to not only fight cancer but also the isolation of a prolonged hospital stay. It was through videogames that Dillon and Chris brought a measure of normalcy back to their lives, and now at just 18 years old, Dillon is committed to sharing that gift with others in similar circumstances. He's the founder of Gamers Gift, a non-profit charity that uses videogames to help sick kids, the elderly, and those with disabilities escape their physical boundaries. And right now, he's committed to to further that dream.
"I just try and give myself as many opportunities to do cool and interesting things with technology that can both help me and other people, because that's what technology is all about," Dillon tells me over Skype. "With VR on the horizon, it's something I really want to be a part of and make a big impact with. That's what drives me."
Dillon isn't your average teenager. When he isn't studying for his double major at the University of California, Davis, he's spending his evenings and weekends visiting children's hospitals and assisted living facilities along with his team of roughly 20 volunteers. Using virtual reality headsets, he's able to give people experiences that they might never have. They can go scuba diving, drive cars, or fly—anything that lets them step outside the troubles of their normal lives. He hopes that he can give others the same kind of escapism videogames provided him and his best friend Chris during their most trying times.
Friends in low places
"I had to Google leukemia because back then because I didn't even know what it was. I tried to visit Chris as much as I could, and for a few weeks it wasn't great. Being in the hospital is not a good experience," Dillon tells me of that formative moment.
But then Chris' dad brought in his Playstation 2. Dillon and Chris finally had an escape. "Just sitting there and playing videogames together was something meaningful and we were able to act like kids again. It made us excited to have our time together and we were always looking forward to our next opportunity to visit and it always brightened the mood," Dillon says.
Chris eventually beat leukemia, but several years later his sister took her own life and again he and Dillon found some measure of solace in videogames. "It was extremely tough for Chris," Dillon says somberly. "It can be really hard to talk directly one to one with someone, especially with such a confusing experience. It was sophomore year of high school and it was just a hard thing to comprehend."
"Eventually Chris came over and we spent time playing Counter-Strike. When you're staring at a screen, you're playing together, having fun and strategizing, it's also a distraction so that he was able to express himself. It was easier for him to talk about how he was feeling when we had something else to focus on. It was more of a connection, a social experience that helped us work together to understand the situation."
Those two experiences convinced Dillon that videogames had the potential to help people, despite what his parents and others might have thought. "Videogames give you control, which is really important when you're someone who has a life where you don't feel in control—you're in a hospital or an assisted living facility."
After spending much of his free time in high school volunteering and helping manage another non-profit organization, Dillon craved a more hands-on experience with those he wanted to help. That's when he and Chris decided to start their own charity. "Me and Chris had English together and we had an excellent teacher that let us slack off in class so we could make a website and logo," he laughs. "We basically started Gamers Gift in our English class. I had the experience of what videogames could do to help people, I had the experience of wanting to do more hands-on volunteering, and I had the experience of running a non-profit. So they all just kind of bled in together."
In February of 2016, with just small team of friends, Gamers Gift became official. Their first obstacle? Raising money. Their solution? Selling cake pops. "We were selling cake pops door-to-door for $2 a piece," Dillon laughs. "The first time we sat down and talked about how to spend our money we had $106 and I pitched in $200 of my own money and we bought the Beatles Rock Band off of eBay. That was our first experiment using videogames to help people."
That experience didn't go so well. Because Dillon, Chris, and the rest of Gamers Gift were all under 18, they weren't allowed to volunteer at any hospitals for children. So Dillon thought he could bring the joy of Rock Band to an elderly assisted-living facility. "The thought of it seemed really entertaining to me—the idea of teenagers and elderly singing together. Smashing on plastic drums seems a little bit more comprehensible than a controller or a keyboard. It seemed like it would get people up on their feet and moving."
But Dillon made two mistakes. The first was buying a used Rock Band kit off of eBay. "When it arrived, it reeked like cigarette smoke. We tried to Febreeze them as best we could and wipe them down, but it was only a few days to the visit so we couldn't re-order."
The second mistake was thinking that old people like the Beatles. "We definitely misunderstood the generation gap," Dillon chuckles. "People in assisted-living facilities are a little older than the target audience for Beatles Rock Band. In fact, it was the exact opposite—they did not like the Beatles at all. We learned that a few minutes in. It was a rough beginning, but the residents had a good sense of humor. It basically ended up with us playing Beatles Rock Band as they made fun of us."
Dillon was a little embarrassed by the ordeal, but he wasn't willing to give up. "It was rough, but it motivated us and we had a fun time doing it. We realized there was potential and we started building relationships that were really useful for the future."
Highs and lows
Over the next six months, Dillon called every children's hospital within two hours of Sacramento. He begged them to let him and his team come visit kids despite not being old enough to actually volunteer. They continued to sell cake pops door to door, host livestreams, and run other fundraisers. And after six months of grinding away, they finally had enough money to buy an HTC Vive. "Once we were able to afford VR, the idea of Gamers Gift, of using videogames for escape, really kind of came to fruition."
"There's a huge children's hospital here in Sacramento that specializes in long-term care and disabilities. They have school there, they have a psychologist—it's really for kids that are in bad situations. We would just not give up, we'd call them once a week, email them every two weeks, and visit them once a month. We were like, please, please, please let us in. We're good people and we're working so hard.
"Me and my girlfriend were driving to a government office to turn in a check for Gamers Gift, and I was in there and I came back out and she was crying in the car. She was so excited and happy. I got into the car and she said, they called back and said we could visit. I just started crying because for about five months at that point we were just begging to come visit. We were so excited."
That visit ended up becoming one of Dillon's greatest achievements. And at the same time, one of his worst failures.
"It was really incredible," he says. "These kids were in bad situations, there were barriers for them even to play the games. It was tough, but we figured out a way to make it work for them, what games they enjoyed. It felt like we had built a relationship with these kids."
A few days after the visit, Dillon says the team was so excited that they made a video and posted it on social media and that's when it all went downhill. "The hospital called me in fourth period and I remember stepping outside because I recognized the number and I thought it was to schedule our next visit," Dillon explains. Instead, he was told he wouldn't be able to come back.
In the video Dillon had shared, he had used the hospital's logo without permission. But the far bigger mistake was saying that they hoped to share photos of the visit, which the hospital took as a violation of their patient's privacy. "I went from a very, very high to a very, very low," Dillon says remorsefully. "It was the greatest accomplishment we had so far and it was just gone. I couldn't even speak. I immediately drafted her an email and apologized and asked for a second chance. She appreciated our determination, but unfortunately it didn't go any further. We're still not allowed at that hospital."
It's always great to see children in the hospital enter VR and escape to virtual worlds! pic.twitter.com/ExvoRCbmqDJanuary 24, 2017
Even though the situation was far worse than a smokey plastic drum set and a group of grumpy old folks, Dillon wasn't willing to give up. He would learn from his mistakes. Gamers Gift continued to work with assisted-living facilities and specific support groups while asking various hospitals to let them come and visit.
In the year since that time, Gamers Gift has managed to raise more than $50,000 and has visited more than 1,000 people. They've obtained sponsorships from companies like EVGA, Asus, and Valve. And Dillon hopes their outreach can continue to grow. One area Dillon is hoping to expand is their personalized outreach, visiting those with disabilities in their own homes and letting them experience a new sense of freedom with VR.
One special moment was when Dillon visited Dominic, who lives with cerebral palsy. "Dominic isn't able to speak and he communicates in yes and no," Dillon explains. "He's unable to move his arms so he's not really able to play videogames." Instead, Dillon strapped him up with VR and let him explore more passive experiences like scuba diving or riding shotgun in a racecar. "He went on a helicopter ride where King Kong attacked and he enjoyed that a lot," Dillon remembers excitedly. "One really cool thing about his experience is his chair can lean back and roll. It's almost like a flight sim chair but his caretaker has to control it. While he was doing the VR, she was moving it like a roller coaster."
It's those little moments that keep him pushing, despite coming up against so many obstacles. "There's no reason not to work hard," he says. "There's a lot of people in bad situations and technology like VR can really help them."
That's why, starting today, Dillon and another Gamers Gift volunteer have set aside seven days to stream on Twitch to raise more money. The idea is simple: For every dollar that is donated, Dillon will continue playing videogames for another minute. As time goes on, that minimum donation goes up slightly, with the ultimate goal of steaming for a maximum of seven days straight. "I always just thought it'd be a really cool event where if people keep donating the stream keeps happening," Dillon says. "It's going to be tough, but we're committed. As long as people are as passionate as we are I know we can make it work."
If you want to check out the stream, . Dillon tells me that they will be raffling off an Intel i7 CPU that EVGA has donated. Every dollar will go towards Gamers Gift's outreach program so that Dillon can visit more hospitals, more assisted-living facilities, and more individuals.
"I want to continue growing," he says. "I want to take these opportunities I have to the next level. I'd love to be able to work with more individuals, it's such a heart-warming experience and it builds such a strong relationship. I want people to realize how technology can help and make use of this incredible gift we have as gamers."