Ever wish there were ways to increase your health and stamina before taking on a challenge? Maybe a first aid kit, a cache of ammo and a bigger weapon hiding in a trunk conveniently located on the way? Real life doesn’t have checkpoints or power-ups before the big battles, but local gaming group 907 Gamers is working to equip children and families to take on villains like cystic fibrosis and cancer.
As part of a nationwide 24-hour gaming charity event called Extra Life, the Anchorage-based group recently raised more than $56,000 for The Children’s Hospital at Providence, obliterating the goal to beat last year’s $11,518 benchmark. The goal was bumped up and surpassed numerous times before last weekend’s event at the Alaska Airlines Center.
“It’s crazy to think that we’ve raised this much money and we haven’t had an event yet. It’s just people at home going out and picking this as their cause,” said 907 Gamers founder, Cameron Cowles, once the group had hit the $30,000 mark.
Raising so much money has put the team in the lead among larger national teams, including company teams from the game Magic: The Gathering and Internet site Reddit. The week before the event, the group was in sixth place overall, aiming for a spot in the top five. As of Monday, the team sat comfortably in third.
Being a preeminent team has had its perks. Donations have come from local companies like GCI and Odom Corporation, as well as global game corporations like Microsoft.
“We’ve got a lot of support this time around because of our being a top team,” he said. “It’s pulled more people together.”
Cowles said what garnered the most excitement was the attendance of professional gamer and commentator David Walsh. Better known by his gaming handle ‘Walshy,’ Walsh is regarded as the greatest Halo player of all time and a competitive gaming legend. He even created a new way of holding a controller, dubbed the “Walshy Claw.”
“He’s like the Michael Jordan of Halo,” Cowles said, his excitement evident as he explained the way a player keeps their thumb on the right stick using their index finger to hit buttons, rather than sacrificing control by using their thumb to hit the buttons.
907 Gamers originated in Cowles’ living room in 2013, where he and friends gathered on Thursday nights for online video gaming. It wasn’t long before jobs, kids and relationships complicated the logistics, so Cowles and his friends decided to open up the group to any who’d be interested in a gaming community. Their Facebook group had 1,000 members from across Alaska by the end of the week.
“It grew really, really fast, so we set up a bunch of stuff to facilitate this community,” he said, listing their Youtube channel, Facebook page and Android app.
With so much energy amassed, Cowles said it was always his plan to do something for charity. It wasn’t long before he found Extra Life.
Extra Life began in Texas in 2008, when the Sarcastic Gaming Community held a 24-hour video game marathon to honor the memory of a young woman named Victoria Enmon and the Children’s Miracle Network Hospital that cared for her during her fight against acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The event raised $302,000 in the span of two years for the Texas hospital, but participating online gamers from other parts of the country wanted to make an impact in their own communities, so organizers expanded Extra Life’s mission to allow proceeds to benefit any Children’s Miracle Network Hospital.
Last year, Cowles and the 907 Gamers organized the event on their own—without talking to anyone or asking permission, harnessing the power of social media to spread the word. Each member set out on their own to generate funds toward the team’s goal of $2,000. The gaming community swelled to 3,500 members, with 88 gamers in physical attendance to the 24-hour Anchorage event. Cowles himself was defeated for the top spot in fundraising by a relatively unknown member of the group, Elijah Powell.
Powell raised $2,000 of the 907 Gamers’ 2014 total. Arguably the most driven volunteer, Powell and his family are all too familiar with pediatric illness. His wife’s brother, Evan, was a patient at The Children’s Hospital at Providence. Evan first got sick around the time he was five years old. After receiving a new kidney, Evan was in and out of the hospital for years. He was diagnosed with cancer as a teen and passed away at just 17.
All of Powell’s fundraising efforts toward Extra Life are in honor of Evan. Powell wanted to raise $5,000 this year, and has collected just over $1,750 so far, guessing the culprit was his new role as an organizer for the group. He told his wife that he’d shave his beard if he collected $1 over his total last year.
“She has been the biggest cheerleader ever since,” he said.
All of the funds donated to Extra Life go into the Children’s Miracle Network fund at Providence. The money keeps child life specialists, parent navigators, and hospital educators on staff to provide for the emotional, as well as physical, health of children and their families while in the hospital.
Through philanthropy like Extra Life, the hospital is able to offer these services free of charge, said Marian Giannulis, philanthropy officer at the Providence Alaska Foundation.
“Extra Life is growing really quickly and it’s becoming one of our biggest fundraisers and it’s really exciting,” she said.
In 2014, there were 4,326 patients admitted to the Children’s Hospital at Providence. Giannulis said the hospital is the only dedicated children’s hospital in Alaska that treats more serious illnesses and injuries, and because of this patients come from all across the state. As a nonprofit hospital, the Children’s Hospital at Providence sees every child that comes in for care, regardless of their ability to pay.
“[These] funds really better the care we are able to provide for these kids,” she said. “For the patients, and their family, as well.”
Other groups contribute to the pool of money that Providence receives from Extra Life, Giannulis said, but most of the excitement that gets people to donate is created by 907 Gamers. Through year-long efforts by Extra Life events in Alaska, Providence received just over $31,000 in 2014. When interviewed the week before the event, Giannulis said she wouldn’t be surprised if 907 Gamers beat that number on their own.
Giannulis is now part of the planning for Extra Life events through Anchorage’s Extra Life Guild, one of many subgroups of the national nonprofit that work with local hospitals to grow the charity, led by Powell as the president and Cowles as a co-vice president.
Through support from Providence, the Guild held this year’s 24-hour gaming marathon at the Alaska Airlines Center. Even with more space than before, the event was at capacity before gaming systems booted up. There were prizes aplenty for those who pulled in the most donations for the group, including items donated by Microsoft and two tickets from Alaska Airlines.
Daniel Popp was in second place for fundraising within Team 907 Gamers before the event. He first got involved in 2013 and has been both an independent fundraiser and an organizer.
“I've always believed in doing some good, no matter how small, to make the world a better place in my own way,” Popp said. “I'd helped in other charities in the past, but never to this extent and I love the idea of playing games to heal kids.”
The average donation Popp gets is $75, but for Carol Vandelaar the average is $25. She described herself as one among the masses asking their friends and family to help.
“Separately, everybody doesn’t raise enough to feel like they make a difference, but if you can get a huge group of people together who raise little bits, you can accomplish a lot.”
Donations to individual team members are still being accepted at extra-life.org. Donations are tax-deductible and 100 percent of funds donated to the 907 Gamers team go to The Children’s Hospital at Providence. Learn more about Team 907 Gamers and Extra Life at 907gamers.com.
Published in the Anchorage Press on October 22, 2015.