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| 5 min read | by Seth Kinker, skinker@thesuntimesnews.com |

On Oct. 30, Cable News Network (CNN) announced their Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2019; Ten men and women with causes who are making the world a better place in various ways with one to be selected for the Hero of the Year award.

Each winner was awarded $10,000 for their cause and the winner of the Hero of the Year award receives an additional $100,000 for their cause that will be announced on Dec. 8

Zach Wigal, founder of Gamers Outreach, pictured in C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital with one of his organization’s portable gaming kiosks. Photo provided by Zach Wigal.

Zach Wigal, a Saline High School graduate, is one of ten up for the award. Wigal turned a hobby of gaming into a nonprofit that brings gaming consoles to kids with chronic illnesses.

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Wigal has been playing games for as long as he can remember. His first console was a Super Nintendo given to him by his parents, but he said the Nintendo 64 is when the gaming bug really bit.

Shadows of the Empire, a Star Wars game, was the game that made him fall in love. Babysitters at a friend’s house were playing and didn’t allow Wigal to play but from then on, Wigal was asking his parents for a console.

“Video games were a consistent hobby. I was involved in sports, had okay grades. I was doing all the ‘normal things’ in school,” said Wigal. “But pretty young, as soon as I started reading Nintendo Power in second or third grade… I was amazed by the video game industry… the stories, the characters, the gameplay. I spent a lot of time playing PC and console video games growing up, and really wanted to have a job in the video game industry.”

Fast forward to 2007 and Halo 2 was the popular game at the time.

Inspired from an episode MTV’s True Life that profiled a professional gamer who competed in tournaments, Wigal wanted to host a tournament of his own.

After promoting his event throughout southeast Michigan communities (back when flyers on windshields existed before web ads) , getting parental consent forms , promising friends he would pay for their console if it was broken at the tournament, and getting permission to use the school’s cafeteria, the tournament was canceled three days before it was supposed to take place with over 300 participants registered.

The initial tournament was shut down because a public safety official in the community had heard about the event and told district administration that video games were “corrupting the minds of America’s youth.”

Although Wigal was heartbroken at the time, it led to the creation of Gamers for Giving in 2008, an annual gaming tournament that provided gamers the opportunity to compete and raise money for charity, and the nonprofit Gamers Outreach that exists today.

“The founding of Gamers Outreach was initially motivated out of a sense of wanting to demonstrate the good that happens when gamers rally around our passion,” acknowledged Wigal. “I realized we had enough people interested in participating that we’d be able to cover our event expenses and have money left over. So, it occurred to me; we could take funds from a new event, donate them to a charitable cause, and at least demonstrate ‘Hey, actually, here’s the good that gamers are capable of doing.’ We now call that event ‘Gamers for Giving,’ and it’s our annual fundraiser.”

12 years later, Gamers for Giving is now one of the largest video game events of its kind. Hosted at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center, Wigal describes Gamers for Giving as “the Jerry Lewis telethon combined with the world of Esports.” Photo provided by Zach Wigal.

Looking back, Wigal says it’s funny that Gamers Outreach was, in some ways, founded out of spite.

“I once read passion is balance between rage and love,” said Wigal. “If you look at most companies or nonprofits, oftentimes they exist because someone wanted to solve a problem. Nonprofits usually exist because someone has a personal connection to a cause or made an initial leap of faith to get involved. It often requires an instigator that inspires or frustrates someone to the point they decide to take action and become a founder.”

Gamers Outreach began working with Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor shortly after the initial “Gamers for Giving” event. It was during that period Wigal learned staff had trouble with giving kids bedside activities.

Enter Gamers Outreach.

Wigal and his budding team began constructing video game kiosks called “GO Karts” (Gamers Outreach Karts) specifically for the medical environment. The intent was for these devices to provide entertainment for children unable to leave their hospital rooms.

A fleet of GO Karts stand ready to provide bedside entertainment to children undergoing medical care. Photo provided by Zach Wigal.

Wigal touched on the sense of normalcy gaming can bring for not only the patients, but their siblings and families.

“Hospitalization is often a lonely, scary, and isolating experience. There are a lot of incredible people working on research and treatment – which is definitely the priority in hospitals. Because of that, quality of life sometimes takes a back seat. Video games are a tool that can not only provide kids with entertainment, but also serve as conduits for socialization.”

A nurse and teen at a hospital in Chicago enjoy moments of relief on one of the Gamers Outreach kiosks.

“Being named a top 10 CNN Hero is a powerful moment to show all the incredible work that games and gamers are doing in hospitals around the country,” said Wigal. “It’s a moment to bring awareness to the struggles that families are facing in hospitals each day. I also hope we can bring awareness to the role of healthcare staff like child life specialists, who help provide ongoing care in these facilities. And for the gaming community – it’s a significant cultural moment to talk about the good games are capable of in a mainstream outlet.”

A child enjoys playing Minecraft on one of the “GO Karts” provided by Gamers Outreach. Photo provided by Zach Wigal.

If Wigal and Gamers Outreach were to win the Hero of the Year award the majority of the funds would go towards GO Karts as well as Player 2.

Player 2 is a volunteer program that invites gamers into hospitals to volunteer as digital activity managers. Gamers and streamers can play games with kids and help with solving minor tech issues. The idea is for gaming enthusiasts to serve as a support layer to a hospital’s tech team, bridging the gap between those who may or may not know about video games.

Popular Fortnite streamer and YouTuber “Cizzorz” visits with children at a hospital in Los Angeles after funding Gamers Outreach programs in the facility.

For Wigal, one of the most rewarding things of the 12-year journey thus far is seeing the kids not only excited about the programs but taking the steps to get involved themselves by starting their own fundraisers for karts for the hospitals.

“I think that’s been really the most validating part of our work,” said Wigal. “Kids themselves are finding enough value in the programs that while they’re in the hospital, they’re taking the initiative to raise money for the work we do. We’ve had multiple instances of patients stepping forward to help grow our programs in healthcare facilities.

“Clearly our cause is resonating with young people – which I think is significant. Speaking personally, prior to Gamers Outreach, I hadn’t been involved in many charitable causes as a teenager. But it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested. The opportunity to be involved had never been presented to me in way that was relevant to my paradigm as a young person. My belief now is that it’s the responsibility of nonprofits, from a marketing standpoint, to connect with people in ways that are relevant. Video games are part of our society’s entertainment fabric.

“That’s not going to change. The platform we’ve created via Gamers Outreach programs is an opportunity to engage with young people through video games in ways that make a positive impact in society at large. I believe games are a conduit for relationship building – like a digital sandbox for the world.”
How can you help?

Voting for the CNN Hero of the Year award can be found, here. Ten votes are allowed per day and voting will run through Dec. 3.

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