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Virtual reality volunteers bring roller coasters and exotic travel to assisted living

Marianne Shores, 76, “rides” a roller coaster through virtual reality goggles provided by the nonprofit Gamers Gift at Atria Carmichael Oaks on May 6, 2017. Shores said her first date was on a roller coaster and she loved them as child. Her virtual reality experience made her dizzy.
Marianne Shores, 76, “rides” a roller coaster through virtual reality goggles provided by the nonprofit Gamers Gift at Atria Carmichael Oaks on May 6, 2017. Shores said her first date was on a roller coaster and she loved them as child. Her virtual reality experience made her dizzy. Special to The Bee

Marianne Shores took the first roller coaster ride of her life as a 16-year-old out on her first date at the Long Beach boardwalk.

Sixty years have passed since that moment, and Shores gets around now with a walker at the Atria Carmichael Oaks residential facility. Yet, on a recent Saturday, she was back speeding down the tracks and gripping the safety bar while wearing cutting-edge virtual reality goggles.

“I have never seen anything like this before,” she said. “It felt like I was on a real roller coaster.”

Shores was one of a dozen seniors who tried out the goggles provided by the nonprofit group Gamers Gift, which visits assisted living facilities and children’s hospitals around Sacramento. Run by Northern California college and high school students, Gamers Gift has visited Atria Carmichael Oaks at least once every month since its founding in February 2016.

“These guys have created and maintained an intergenerational relationship with our residents,” said Ryan Harris, engagement life director at Atria Carmichael Oaks. “This shows the residents that (they) are not done with their lives and they can have a good time if they want to.”

By linking Google Maps and a smartphone hooked up to virtual reality goggles, Gamers Gift brought Atria Carmichael Oaks resident Tony Quattro, 94, back to his hometown of Rome, N.Y., about two decades after his last visit there.

“My house was gone, but the street looked similar,” Quattro said. “It gave me nostalgia and brought me back a lot of good old memories.”

Dillon Hill, CEO of Gamers Gift and a UC Davis freshman, said he came up with the idea for the organization after watching a close friend fight leukemia from his bed in a children’s hospital. The friend’s only escape from the treatment was plugging into his PlayStation 2 and playing games.

Hill said he learned then that video games can make a real difference for people going through hard times. After founding the group during his last year at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks, Hill said he “used technology to bring the best to those in need.”

“I believe that video games provide a chance for patients to escape their pain and enter virtual worlds of adventure and excitement,” Hill, 18, said. “It warms my heart to see them having fun. This is what I intended to do from the start.”

With a simple setup, hospitalized children and elderly residents can put on the goggles to go scuba diving, land on the moon or participate in one of the many other adventures installed on Gamers Gift’s systems. Unpaid volunteers run the group, often livestreaming their gameplay screens on Twitch.tv.

“I’m not really a gamer myself, but it was really eye-opening to see how gaming can change people’s lives,” said Kirsten Chrisco, director of outreach at Gamers Gift and an American River College freshman. “It’s really satisfying to visit those who are in such bad situations and just bring a little bit of happiness even for a short while.”

Since starting, Gamers Gift has raised more than $50,000 and gathered 30,000 social media impressions. Tech companies such as Asus, Valve and Logitech became “game angels” and made equipment donations, Hill said.

“I think we need to get more gaming systems so that people don’t have to wait a little while for their turns to try virtual reality,” Chrisco said.

Chrisco has reached out to local hospitals and assisted-living facilities for the organization. This Friday, Gamers Gift will visit children at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera. An Atria Carmichael Oaks stop is planned again in June.

In February, Hill and a volunteer stopped by the George Mark Children’s House in San Leandro, where they spent the afternoon with two disabled teenagers. Before they left, Hill presented the kids with gaming headphones and game discs.

“The kids were big gamers, and they really had a great time,” said Colette Case, a child life specialist at the hospital. “We know that if we contact them again, they will come right away.”

Walter Ko: 916-321-1436, @juntaeko

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