Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX


July 29, 2011

A new frontier in fundraising

JACKSONVILLE — I was fortunate to take part in a unique fundraising event last weekend — I “walked” in a virtual Relay for Life.

Relay for Life is nothing new in Cherokee County. Our local group raises a tremendous amount of money annually for the American Cancer Society.

And as someone whose family has been hard hit by cancer, I am grateful beyond words for thier efforts.

This past weekend was the Relay for Life of Second Life and it works essentially the same as a “real world” RFL. The exception: all events and fundraising are done virtually.

Yes, when I say “virtually”, I mean all on the Internet.

And though the event was conducted on the Internet and relied on virtual fundraising efforts, it raised more than $370,000 for ACS — that’s actual U.S. dollars.

For those who have not yet heard of Second Life, it is an Internet-only virtual world in which people make accounts, create avatars for themselves and create almost all of the content. In fact, one of the initial goals of Second Life creators Linden Labs of San Francisco, Calif., was for everything in the virtual world to be user created. They even dub their users “residents” to give a sense of ownership.

And, yes, many people use Second Life as a way to meet a mate, explore experiences they’re not brave enough to pursue in the real world, or even do illicit things.

SL offers much more, though, of which many people are unaware.

Several universities around the world use SL as a training tool for classes. There are virtual churches in which people preach the Gospel and proselytize. Businesses use SL as a means to conduct meetings with partners around the world. There are even live concerts.

Some mainstream entertainment has tapped into SL for story lines, such as the TV shows CSI and Office Space.

Celebrities have admitted to logging into SL in order to explore and experience things anonymously. Comedian Drew Carey even has blogged about some of his experiences.

NASA and other government entities have bases, museums and exhibits in SL. (In fact, I have a friend who works for NASA and is “officed” by them virtually. He actually works from home.)

Some entrepreneurial spirits have even found ways to create virtual content for SL and make their real world livings off their virtual products.

And now, my dirty little secret: I have been a “resident” of SL since 2006.

It isn’t something I have told many people about (until now, I guess). I suppose it is, in many people’s opinions, an odd thing to do. I mean, why spend time in a virtual world when there is so much “real world” to explore?

Here’s why: I first made an account on SL when I was working at UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth. I read a news article about another medical school that had constructed a virtual campus on SL and was using it as a teaching tool. Me, being as nosy and curious as I am, wanted to see what was going on.

My first day on SL, I attended a lecture about the legalities of performing autopsies and using cadavers in medical school classes.

I also toured a museum this same school had established that exhibited photos of how certain diseases affect the human body.

And I did it all from the comfort of my office chair.

Since then, I have explored a lot of what SL has to offer. I’ll admit, there is a lot of it I don’t care for at all. But there is so much amazing stuff (for lack of a better word) that goes on there.

I have attended church services on SL and been convicted spiritually.

I have attended live music events and heard some amazing singers and musicians.

I have participated in classes and even been a part of some fiction writing projects.

I have listened to lectures and seminars on too many topics to name.

And after five years of these kinds of events, I thought I was pretty well-versed in all things SL had to offer.

This weekend’s RFL surprised me, though. It’s not just that a bunch of people used the Internet to gather together.

It’s that they used this venue that many think of as pure entertainment for fundraising.

And beyond that, they used it as a way to remember and memorialize those they have loved and lost to such a horrific disease.

Personally, as I listened to people read the testimonies of cancer survivors, caregivers, and family members of those who lost their battle with the disease, I was in tears.

I lost my grandfather to leukemia, an uncle to esophageal cancer, and two great-uncles to cancer as well. My family knows all too well what the disease can do.

One of the event’s organizers, at the end of the 24-hour event, said that what RFL had done in a virtual world would make history. He said in years to come, people would look back on the event and the organization that made it happen, and use it as a guide for future similar fundraisers.

True, virtual worlds and Internet-only relationships aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Many people don’t understand or appreciate it. Many people still do think of things like Internet “chatting” as weird.

But there are those people who take something that could have entertainment-only value and turn it into something amazing.

I’m glad I got to take part in it.

For more information about Relay For Life in Second Life, visit www.relayforlife.org/secondlife and for more information about Second Life, visit www.secondlife.com.

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