"What kind of grown man goes to Disney World by himself?” Growing up in Canada, you instantly know when you’re talking to an American. I don’t mean that disparagingly, but there’s a sixth sense you develop if you’ve travelled and met Americans abroad. They have a certain way of talking and carrying themselves. They’re brash and cocksure. You can pick them out of a crowd. What the Customs agent had just said to me was not so much a question as a statement. What threw me most was how differently a Canadian or European customs official would have handled the exchange. Because, yes, perhaps a grown man travelling by himself to Disney World raises a red flag. But instead of gently inquiring as to my motives to travel solo to “The Happiest Place on Earth”, this agent had cut to the quick with that inherent American-ness I’m not used to. Simultaneously doing his job and taking a jab at me.
“I’m heading to a charity event for the Children’s Miracle Network of hospitals”, I replied after regaining my composure. His face warmed as the puzzle pieces fell into place. Satisfied, he waves me through and I continue on with my journey to Orlando, stamped passport in hand. I make a quick stop to grab a coffee before catching my next flight. Large café latte. One sugar. Sometimes I have a moment when I stir my coffee, watching the sugar and foam and espresso fold in on eachother. It’s routine but hypnotic and I can become lost for a second in my thoughts. This time I marvel at the scope of what it is I’m about to be a part of.
Extra Life is a twenty four hour video game marathon that raises money for children’s hospitals all over Canada and the United States. Jeromy ‘Doc’ Adams began the charity in 2008 shortly after his young friend Victoria Enmon lost her battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and in the following years, with the help of his team and an ever growing community, Extra Life has grown exponentially. “Extra Life United” is their inaugural charity tournament that gathers fundraisers from all over North America for a two day event at Disney World. Over seventy players would be pitted against each other, but only the top six would bring home a share of one hundred thousand dollars for their local children’s hospital. Not only had I been lucky enough to receive an invite, but I also had the time and means to make it down for the week.
Even though I was ecstatic, I also felt somewhat unworthy. The work my friends and I had done with Extra Life was just cursory. We had only participated for a couple of years and our total funds raised was a few thousand dollars, which seemed paltry when compared to some of the larger organizations that take part. When I first heard of the event it sounded like a great way to play video games for twenty-four hours and not feel guilty. I could relax with friends and indulge in our shared passion over a few drinks. The charity and the actual good being done was secondary, a justification for what we were doing. An all night gameathon, as exhausting as it is, is nowhere near as arduous as the Boston Marathon. But hey, “It’s for the kids!” I had a hard time fundraising for Extra Life, as I felt fraudulent asking people to support such an odd event. “Oh … so you just play video games?” would be the typical reply, and I would respond with a sheepish, “Yes.” I could not even convince myself what we were doing was noble. But I was mistaken.
I don’t travel to the United States often, so when I do I forget ... how shall I say it? How bombastic everything is. Bigger, louder, and unapologetic. As similar as our two countries are, it’s a stark reminder of how foreign we can be. I was relieved when meeting the other participants at our first meet and greet. They were an eclectic mix from across North America. We were all awkward nerds; anxious about the tournament, excited to explore Disney, eager to make new friends and share this incredible experience. There were even those that echoed my own concerns; unsure why we’d been invited, imagining their support of the charity wasn’t enough. There had somehow been a mistake and we’d slipped through the cracks to be here.
Representing hospitals from most of the states and provinces, everyone had their own story. Some had personal experiences with their local children’s hospital and wanted to give back, others were excited for the competition. The majority, like myself, were just happy to be there and soak it all in. The tournament ran for two days along with a number of side events for those that were defeated in the early stages. The competition was fierce, but friendly, and I distinctly remember the moment when I knocked out another player. There was the excitement from the win, knowing I’d have the chance to move on, and a simultaneous pang of guilt. I had eliminated another player who was representing a different children’s hospital, and now their hopes of that grand prize had been snuffed out. It was an odd feeling, one I struggled with for a time, but in the end I realized that everything we were doing --- the fundraising, the tournament, raising awareness --- it was all for the kids. The grander scale of what we were a part of had been hard to grasp until now.
The Extra Life tournament was just a small part of the larger annual conference for the Children’s Miracle Network. It’s a gathering of fundraisers, sponsors, and hospital representatives to praise the ongoing work of the organization and to plot their course for future endeavours. Most important, though, it is a celebration to honour the kids representing all the children’s hospitals in North America. These Champions (and there is no title more fitting) have faced unrelenting trials, so for those few days in Disney World we were able to remind them of how important and special they are. During the opening ceremonies these kids, along with their families, made an entrance that was befitting of rock stars. Hundreds of people cheered and called out to them as their procession made its way in. It was a truly overwhelming spectacle.
For the longest time, in my mind, they had been a vague concept or a random picture on a hospital banner; an oblique reference to rally behind and make the number on a donation thermometer go up. It had been just fun and games for me. What can I get from Extra Life? What experience will I have? Seeing those children in person with their families, and hearing their stories, changed all that.
I want to tell everyone my motives had been pure and altruistic from the start, but that would be lying. Meeting these kids changed me. For that very reason: they’re kids, with hopes and dreams and smiles that made me crumble. For a lot of them, their futures are uncertain, but because of the work Extra Life and its community does, many of them can hold on to hope and one day achieve their dreams. Being a small part of this huge event was humbling and transformative. Next year, when I take part in Extra Life, it will not be with a focus on what I am doing, but who I am doing it for.
When everything was done --- the tournament winners declared, the kids high-fived, and the sad farewells with my new friends complete --- I found myself staring into another coffee waiting for my flight home. It had been a whirlwind trip and an experience I’ll never forget. The other competitors I had met were some of the most compassionate, generous, and honourable people I’ve ever encountered and I already missed them dearly. Saying “life changing” would be cliché, but something had definitely changed. I had a new found zeal and a fervent belief in the good that this charity accomplishes. I had seen the proof. I had hugged that proof, heard them laugh, and seen them dance and sing.
Watching the sugar and foam and espresso fold in together, I realized I was crying. Not tears of joy or sadness, just an expression of an overwhelming emotion; a manifestation of what I had been through and the knowledge that I could never return to the person I was. And I didn’t want to. Extra Life was no longer an excuse, simply a justifiable reason to game, but a cause. It was my cause, and I will always carry it with me.