Over a decade ago, I made a promise. I was driving to work and my favourite radio station was running a week long radio-a-thon in support of Sick Kids Hospital. Instead of my usual morning music and entertainment chatter, I listened to stories from children and families who have been helped by Sick Kids. I cried all the way to the office and promised myself that, whether or not I had children, Sick Kids would be the one charity I would unfailingly support.

Fast forward a few more years and two children later, I was listening once again to the radio and learned about Extra Life, a charity event where gamers play games—any kind of games—for 24 hours in support of Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Hospitals. As a gamer, as a parent, and with my promise in mind, participating in Extra Life was a no-brainer for me, and now I am so proud to have my children join me in the efforts. I arrived home from work to find my eldest (10) ready to get started early for the November 7th event. Sure, some of her excitement was based on the fact that she’d get to play her favourite game, Minecraft, and stay up all night, but she does understand the real reason we do this: #ForTheKids.

Wendy Browne and daughter at Sick Kids Hospital for Extra Life 2015

Hitting the heart block at Sick Kids

My usual set up for Extra Life is hunkered down in a cozy room in the house, wearing comfy clothes, surrounded by Pepsi, Red Bull, and various snacks, but this year was a bit different. This year I got to visit Sick Kids for the first time to actually see the benefits of Extra Life in action. The girls and I took a pause from our gaming for the drive down to Toronto and were amazed and humbled from the moment we walked into the atrium.

Although about a thousand gamers were busy playing in support of Sick Kids, not many make it down to the hospital’s event. Nonetheless, the organizers pull out all the stops in a little corner of the atrium, because, once again, this is #ForTheKids. Many of the families staying at the hospital will come down for a visit, while others who are unable to leave their rooms or floors, play upstairs.

A father, holding his little boy in his arms, was amazed to learn about Extra Life, noting that things like this often don’t pop up on your radar until you are in need yourself. Now that he knows, he plans to participate next year, pleased to discover that Extra Life’s criteria for “gaming” expands into sports, board games, and various other activities.

Prior to attending the event, I’d been in contact with Jennifer Frew, CMN Development Coordinator at Sick Kids and one of the organizers of the day’s festivities. She introduced me to her colleagues, including Adam Starkman, Director of CMN and National Partnerships, who very kindly took us on a brief tour of the building. My daughters commented that the atrium, which was built in 1993 and designed by the same architects behind the Toronto Eaton Centre, did not feel (or smell) like a hospital at all—which is exactly the intention. We were not able to visit the upper floors for health reasons, but Starkman pointed out the various rooms on each of the upper floors dedicated entirely to play. No matter what these children are going through, they are still children and everything Sick Kids can do to help them focus on something other than their illness or injury is paramount. The hospital also cares very much for the family as a whole, providing a Play Park just for siblings and a resource centre for parents to conduct independent research to empower themselves with information on their child’s ailments. In conjunction with the Toronto Public Library, kids can borrow books from the hospital’s own library, and participate in close circuit, live broadcast programming, including daily storytime and activities with community members and celebrities.

Approximately 60,000 patients pass through the hospital’s emergency ward each year and Starkman, who has been with Sick Kids for about ten years, continues to be overwhelmed by the attention paid to both the patients and the families and was unsurprised by my tears as he spoke. During his tenure, he’s seen so many amazing things. Right across the road from the atrium is the research facility where incredible discoveries, such as the identification of the gene for Cystic Fibrosis, are made. Heart transplants can be performed for children, despite blood type incompatibility—a discovery made by Sick Kids researchers. Starkman also pointed out that he’s seen the need for invasive surgery dramatically reduced, with some children heading home on the same day following a procedure that required much longer recovery time in years gone by.

On our way back home, we stopped at the Eaton Centre to grab a bite to eat and show the girls the architectural similarities mentioned. We paused at a Sick Kids kiosk where I was able to show the girls “bravery beads,” which, based on the look on my daughters’ faces, are what truly made them understand how fortunate they are to be healthy, happy little girls.

The Bravery Bead Program allows children who wish to participate, the chance to collect a different bead for each procedure or event while visiting the hospital for treatment. The goal of the program is to make a necklace with colourful beads that represent the unique and special journey of a particular child and to make something that they are proud of and want to share with family and friends. Beads are not given as a reward or something to be earned but rather to represent each child’s individual story through treatment.”

Some of these incredible children have multiple necklaces and wear them proudly. I am truly blessed that my daughters are healthy and that we have never had to use the services Sick Kids provides, but my heart goes out to all those that endure and those that stand with them. Standing in the middle of the atrium at Sick Kids, considering all the efforts and funds that others put into research and helping children and families through their ordeals, I felt very small and insignificant. What did my day of gaming really do to help? But Starkman reminded me that every bit counts, and my daughters and I are an important cog in a very big machine. As part of Extra Life, we helped raise over six million dollars, bringing the total raised since Extra Life began in 2010 to over $20 million.

So what did we play? Well, my daughters worked their way through Minecraft and Animal Jam and took over my laptop at one point to giggle their way through Guild Wars 2, during which time I switched to my phone to play Alphabear. At Sick Kids, we played Pictionary, LEGO Indiana Jones, and Madagascar 2. My adventures in Dungeons & Dragons continued with two different sessions taking place online through Myth Weavers and Roll20.net. I was recently suckered back in to playing Star Wars: The Old Republic—by suckered, I mean I am obsessed with Bioware games and utterly failed to resist the latest addition to their Star Wars story—so that filled up a few hours, including some Friday night gaming. I also took the opportunity to catch up on the episodic games I am behind on, including Game of Thrones, which disappoints me with its pointlessness (spoiler: everybody dies), and Life is Strange, which broke my heart.

This year’s Extra Life event conveniently coincided with N7 Day, a day that means a lot to fans of Bioware’s space faring game, Mass Effect. Bioware celebrated both N7 Day and Extra Life, streaming Mass Effect game play, and releasing an inspiring new trailer for the Christmas 2016 release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, where our beloved Commander Shepard signs off and passes the torch for a new story and hero to save the galaxy. I hadn’t intended to replay Mass Effect yet again, but on such an auspicious day, how could I not?

I tucked the kids into bed at 10:00pm, and went on myself until 4:00am, and woke up to the amazing news of how much we’d raised (though Extra Life is still accepting donations through the end of the year). Individually, our contributions might be small, but that makes us no less of a #SickKidsHero. Every smile we can put on a child’s face is worth every penny.