Upcoming senior at Salesianum Nick Priest knows the power gaming can have, both as a bonding experience between individuals, and as a tool for relieving stress.
"My dad and I always played video games when I was little. He actually instilled this love of video games in me. We played together. We played on the Wii, we played Mario, or when he played Zelda, I'd watch him. But he was like my gaming partner," Priest told WDEL. "Unfortunately, my dad passed away from cancer when I was six years old, and it left me without a gaming partner."
As a freshman, Priest started mulling over the idea of finding a project to help people. He recognized as he grew that the love of video games his father instilled in him could be the way to connect with other young kids facing the same struggles to help them through their trying times.
By February 2020, he'd founded Nick's Power of Play (NPOP), a program where Priest and other volunteers game online with young kids who are either sick themselves, or are dealing with someone in their lives who is battling a serious illness, and was ready for a debut outing.
"It's like paying tribute to him," he said. "Now, instead of just me and you playing, I'm going to be playing with a whole lot of other kids."
Following a trip to Nemours/AI duPont Hospital for Children, the cloud of COVID-19 settled over the world, and Priest was discouraged that perhaps NPOP would peter out before it ever really got underway. He spent some time helping in other ways initially.
With March Madness canceled, he started a bracket of Disney and Pixar movies, selling entries for $5 a pop to raise funds.
"I raised just about $1,000 during COVID, which is awesome," Priest said. "I didn't know that I was going to be able to do that, and it was really cool. I was able to buy two [PlayStation 4s] and some controllers for the hospital. But then I decided I'm not giving up on this idea."
After some legwork due to increasing concerns over COVID's Delta variant, and organizing with the hospital and some lawyers to ensure connections were safe and secure for the children involved, Priest is preparing for his first all-virtual event with children receiving care at Nemours via a communications app popular in the gaming community called Discord.
"We decided it doesn't make too much sense for me to go into the hospitals and still not be able to play directly with them, so I get to play right from my room, and it's fun," Priest said. "The idea is that I'm going to be able to hop on this call with these kids, and we're always going be able to play games together and just be able to talk. I can help them forget about everything for a little bit and just, you know, play some video games."
Right now, Priest has more volunteers through the program than children who know about the opportunity, but he's hoping that expands as more adults become aware of the outlet and look to get their own children involved, and he hopes it will be positive for everyone.
"We're really, really trying to expand this thing and get it off the ground. I have enough volunteers. If we get 20 kids, I'll be ready. It's just all about the kids," he said. "It's something that I wish that I would have had after my dad passed away, I would have loved to have a teenage boy to play Mario with, that would have been awesome. That's what I'm trying to provide to these kids. I want to be there for them in the hardest part of their lives, and just try to let them forget about it for a while."
An opportunity to put things aside for a bit was something Priest wished he'd had.
"They have an illness or something, and their life doesn't have to be only about that. A lot of their life is probably around, 'I'm sick. I have this,'" he said. "When you hop on with me, or you hop on with a volunteer, it's not going to be about that at all. It's going to be, 'Alright, let's build this huge house in Minecraft. And we're going to build a mansion for an hour, to help them forget about it for a little. I know they'll never really, truly be able to forget about it. But it's just a distraction. A good distraction. That's the whole idea."