How volunteering my time changed my life

  Co-founder and President of Sandbox Gaming talks about changing lives, including his own



By: John Michael Bennett

In 2010, I co-founded a non-profit organization and while it may be one I helped create, it continues to affect my life in positive ways to this day. I am the co-founder and President of Sandbox Gaming in Newfoundland. To give the short version, we use video games for good. We take something that is now so prolific in our everyday lives and aim to make a difference with them.

Sandbox Gaming is a registered non-profit organization that does three things: we raise money for children’s charities that promote play and development; we build a gaming community in Newfoundland; and we aim to dispel negative stereotypes about gamers. We have over 60 regular volunteers—that is volunteers who come to meetings weekly and contribute to the organization on a weekly sometimes daily basis—and we are only volunteer run, no staff. 

And founding this organization changed my life forever. You see, at 20 years old, I was like many 20 year olds: lost. I was attending Memorial University because I was supposed to, that’s what they told you to do. I was thinking about going to law school, because that’s what you were supposed to do if you were smart. Or at least, I believed so. I didn’t really know what I wanted. Then, this opportunity came along and I felt less lost. When I got up in the mornings, after class, I knew that I could start committing time to a great cause like SBG. I met new people and found out that even making the tiniest of differences was an amazing feeling that could not be beat.

It wasn’t just that, but joining a group of individuals with a defined purposed and a sense of community helped everything else become a lot better. I began to enjoy my schooling. I began to enjoy many elements of everyday life that I appreciate less. Simply by finding something to do that I loved doing, I was able to change my entire outlook on life. 

Since 2010, my life has become busier. I became more than just a student, often working full-time, while finishing my undergraduate at Memorial part-time, and of course, running Sandbox Gaming, working sometimes close to 20 hours a week on SBG—and SBG was all volunteer, no pay. And I’ll be honest, that was and still is taxing. But then I think about the impact, the tangible different that Sandbox Gaming has made in the lives of many.

You see, Sandbox Gaming has affected so many people in so many ways. Firstly, the charities we support. It warms my heart every time I walk into one of these charities, and see any of the beneficiaries of a given program. To see the smiles on their faces and their sense of belonging. To know, even if it was a small difference, it was still a difference. To know that our impact on even one child at one of these charities would explode outward—it would not only change a child’s life for ever, but all those around them. How even one dollar is one dollar more towards changing many lives in a positive way. It’s an addicting high that I recommend to anyway.

But then there is Sandbox Gaming internally. While SBG volunteers range from 16-60, the large majority of volunteers are youth—those under 30. And often times, particularly in this complicated world, youth are just finding a place to make a difference and a place of belonging. And I cannot count how many volunteers have said by being able to give back to the community by doing something they love—such as video games—has done positive things for their life. How many of our volunteers have learned skills and confidence at SBG and later went on to use those skills elsewhere—including using many of these skills volunteering 

The very fact you are reading this article is because of Sandbox Gaming. Before hand, I was unsure of a career path to follow. Now, I work in communications, project management, and charitable development in my various jobs. Because of the skills I built with Sandbox Gaming, I was able to later go on and apply these in the professional world. I can say without a doubt that I learned more from having to go out and figure out how to start a non-profit from nothing than I did from my entire undergraduate degree. Not to speak ill of the programs—I later enjoyed my time at Memorial, but there is something to be said about the importance of practical experience. 

Now, we gear up for our next holiday video game marathon. Our marathons follow a simple concept. During 80 hours, we provide entertainment on two screens, all which is viewed in one video feed on our website. The first screen is the game being played through, and we will be playing through 45 different games over that time period. The second screen is where you can watch and hear the players, and you begin to get to know them over the weekend. As well, on the website is a chat box and donate box—where you can chat with us, have your input, your messages read out. And of course, the most important element, the donate box, where you can donate all online. It’s all on one website, and is much easier seen than explained. 

The holiday season always reminds me of Sandbox Gaming’s start, as our very first marathon was shortly before Christmas and while we do two marathons each year, one is always around Christmas time! 

This week alone, I’ll probably volunteer 20 hours in my role as volunteer President of Sandbox Gaming, an unpaid role. However, unpaid in the traditional sense—the sense of satisfaction knowing how much of a difference we continue to make is worth every minute of it. 

You can watch, chat, and donate to the 13th marathon from Dec 2-5 at 100 per cent of the marathon proceeds go towards three charities: Easter Seals NL, The St. John’s REAL Program, and Children’s Wish Newfoundland and Labrador. You can donate in person during the marathon at 206 Mount Scio Road where the marathon will be filming live!

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