“This must be the easiest fundraising plan in the world; you don’t even have to get up off the couch if you don’t want to,” says Tracy Degrazia. She’s talking about the Extra Life program, in which gamers — people who play video games, board games, phone games, card games and other forms of competitive play — use their passion to raise money for children’s hospitals.
Not that Tracy would know much about staying on the couch. Together with Tim Vincens and Harrison Guzman, she is part of the Extra Life Hartford Guild, which last year facilitated more than $127,000 in donations to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Since 2010, Extra Life has generated more than $380,000. That remarkable achievement requires year-round effort and constant outreach.
Extra Life is a program of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a national umbrella group of children’s hospitals that includes Connecticut Children’s. Extra Life works in similar way to foot races for charity, in which participants ask friends and family members to donate a certain amount of money for every hour they play, or variations on that theme. Although the actual fundraising mechanisms take many forms throughout the year, the centerpiece is a 24-hour marathon gaming session that this year takes place on November 3.
The Guild’s purpose is to promote the program in the gaming community, to be cheerleaders and recruit new participants. And Tim, Harrison and Tracy have done that in spades. In 2014, before the Guild was formed, Extra Life participants raised $38,000. The next year, with the Guild in place, the program generated more than $77,500, and the total has grown dramatically from there.
All three got involved in much the same way. “I started doing research about ways to use what I did with my time — playing board games — for a better cause,” says Harrison. And a better cause could hardly be found. The money that is raised by Extra Life players goes to help sick children, children like Gavin David.
Gavin is an ebullient child, always happy, always running, says his mother, Lindsay. “He’s a ball of sunshine,” she says. Gavin’s journey through Connecticut Children’s Medical Center began in March 2017, two weeks after he woke up with a bloody nose. His mother, Lindsay, figured it was just winter in New England with the dry air, put a humidifier in his room, and let it go. But the next weekend the family went to a foot race, and the 2-year-old Gavin was very clingy and didn’t want to be put down. The following day he had a slight fever, which the doctor thought might be an ear infection and for which he prescribed antibiotics. It all seemed pretty typical. Then Gavin’s face started swelling and stomach got larger.
Three pediatrician visits within five days and after a battery of tests were run, the pediatrician called at 7:30 on the morning of March 28, 2017. “He said, ‘Your son has leukemia, and you need to take him to the emergency room right away,’” Lindsay recalls. “They were worried because his lymph nodes and spleen were enlarged from the leukemia and his platelets were dangerously low.” Gavin was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and spent the next 26 days in the hospital. When he was diagnosed, his white blood cell count was 480,000 (typical counts are in the range of 4,300 to 10,000) and 95 percent of them were leukemic.
The doctors put a port in Gavin’s chest so he could more easily receive chemotherapy two days after he was diagnosed and started the chemo that same day. The first nine months were weekly trips to Connecticut Chilren’s for chemo, blood tests and checkups and a total of 20 more nights in the hospital. He is now into the maintenance phase of treatment where he gets his chemo at home orally every day and has one visit to the hospital a month to get treatment which some months also include sedation, a spinal tap and chemo put into his spine to make sure he doesn’t relapse in his spine or brain. He has been in complete remission since May 1, 2017, but he will continue his monthly visits and daily oral chemo as a preventative measure until June 20, 2020. “He’s doing great,” says Lindsay. “Now, when he refuses to go to bed, I’m happy, because that’s normal kid stuff. He’s doing normal three-year-old stuff, and that’s just great.”
Anyone Can Play!
Contrary to some people’s assumptions, gamers cover the entire spectrum of ages, backgrounds and occupations. All three of the Guild members are outgoing, affable and passionate adults with professional careers. Gaming is an intensely social activity, both in terms of the games themselves, many of which involve playing against others, and in terms of activities outside the games. There is a wide range of conventions and other social gatherings for gamers, where they celebrate victories, trade tips and generally share their mutual passion.
Gaming conventions are the hunting grounds for the Guild members. They tell other gamers about Extra Life and encourage them to get involved. It’s an appealing pitch. There haven’t been a lot of opportunities for gamers to participate in peer-to-peer fundraising events, which are mostly focused on running or other activities, and Extra Life gives them a way to make a difference using the activity they are most passionate about. “When you hit that 24th hour,” Tracy says, “you get a real sense of accomplishment. It’s a wonderful thing to do.”
“Younger people think philanthropy is not something they can incorporate into their lives” Harrison says, “but Extra Life lets them know that you don’t have to step out of your comfort zone.”
While the gaming is the vehicle for Extra Life, the Guild members say that the real reason they do it is to help the children being cared for by Connecticut Children’s. They have met — and played games like Rhino Hero with — several of those children, which is one of the highlights of their year’s effort. “One of the most important things about Extra Life is that 100 percent of the money we raise goes to care for the kids,” Tracy says. “When I talk with high school kids and young professionals, I tell them this.”
Knowing that they’re working for the kids has an additional personal benefit, too. “We can play a long time without feeling bad about it,” Harrison says.
“And nobody can yell at you,” Tracy adds, “because you’re doing it for a good cause.”
Click here to join this year’s game playing and help kids at Connecticut Children’s get their own extra life. You don’t even have to get up off the couch to sign up.