Games for Heroes: Lifting the Spirits of Troops Overseas

Games for HeroesAndrew Brusso
Like most teenage guys, Peter Gallagher and Jack Wilson love to play video games, perhaps too much. That’s why their parents established a strict rule: Games were off-limits, except on weekends. After school, the two would shoot hoops or head to lacrosse practice. But come Saturday, they’d fire up the Xbox 360 and play favorites including Madden NFL and the war game Call of Duty.

These days, the friends, now 18, are channeling their passion for gaming into something any parent would be proud of: their own charity that aims to lift the spirits of U.S. troops fighting overseas.

Peter and Jack collect new and used handheld video games and gaming systems—like Game Boy, Nintendo DS, and PlayStation Portable—and send them to soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “A lot of the troops are not much older than Jack and me,” says Peter, a competitive water-skier who teaches the sport to younger kids during the summer. “The games help take their minds off things.”

Peter and Jack started thinking about the troops in March 2008, when they organized a community-service project they called Cheer Up the Troops. They spent a week at two elementary schools near their homes in Westchester County, New York, helping students write 1,000 letters and create drawings to send to soldiers overseas.

That’s when Jack and Peter heard that handheld video games were in great demand. The teens put collection boxes in their school as well as in churches and fire stations. “It was amazing how many people had old games lying around,” says Jack.

The friends also collect batteries and cash donations that they use to buy new items at a discount. Sports games, like NBA Live and FIFA Soccer, and action and strategy games, like Warhammer and Age of Empires, have universal appeal. To give the troops “a taste of home,” says Jack, they ask the kids who donate their games to write a short note or e-mail to a soldier.

As demand grew, the teens started a charity, Games for Heroes, and contacted manufacturers. Sony, Electronic Arts, Capcom, and G-Net have donated about 1,000 games. In just two years, the charity has distributed more than $100,000 in goods. The teens rely on word of mouth, recruitment and reserve centers, and networking to expand their database of names and addresses.

And the soldiers appreciate their efforts. While stationed in Iraq, 1st Lt. Daniel A. Garcia-Ascanio awarded the games and systems as prizes at a video game Olympics and a best-squad competition he hosted for the troops. The events, says Garcia-Ascanio, were “a blast.” Some recipients regift the gaming systems when their stints are up, leaving them behind for others to play.

The teens will start college this fall—Peter at Elon University, in North Carolina, and Jack at Union College, in New York—but they remain committed to the project. They now plan to send games to wounded soldiers recovering at military hospitals in the United States. “We’re in this for the long haul,” says Peter. “We’ll ship games to our heroes until the last soldier comes home.”

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