Five-year-old Stephanie De Souza was born with a congenital heart defect, and has been receiving care at Emily’s House children’s hospice, a Toronto-based organization that provides respite and palliative care to children, for her entire life.
This past weekend, she dressed up as Supergirl, and thanks to a virtual-reality project, got to experience Halloween, a night many of the children at Emily’s House often cannot participate in because of their medical conditions.
“For her it was amazing,” says Stephanie’s father, Andre De Souza.
The virtual-reality Halloween experience was created by Wishplay, a Toronto-based non-profit organization.
“What Wishplay is all about is being able to let people live beyond what their limitations are,” says executive director David Parker.
Staff at Emily’s House welcomed the idea of providing a virtual-reality Halloween experience for the children and youth in care.
“We’re always looking for ways to make things adaptable for our children so they can experience life to the fullest,” says Heather Shillinglaw, co-ordinator of recreation and legacy programs at Emily’s House. “A lot of our children being medically fragile, they wouldn’t be able to go trick-or-treating.”
Some of the children are unable to climb stairs, and for many others it is too dangerous to be out in cold temperatures. Families who were invited to experience the virtual-reality project on Saturday all have a child who has a progressive, life-limiting illness, or kids in end-of-life care, Shillinglaw says.
To give them the chance to go trick-or-treating through virtual reality, Wishplay organized a mock Halloween in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood. Houses were decorated and 40 kids dressed up and went from door to door.
“It was everyone from a little tyke to teenagers,” Parker says.
The project allows children at Emily’s House to feel as if they are going door-to-door alongside the actual kids.
Wishplay also filmed Camp Spooky, a collection of activities including mazes and foam pits, and the Halloween Haunt, which turns a theme park into a giant haunted house, both at Canada’s Wonderland, so families at Emily’s House could experience them in virtual reality.
Parker has used virtual reality in the past to help adult patients in hospital care experience things their conditions might otherwise bar them from. He’s created a virtual-reality skiing experience for stroke patients, and has taken those with Alzheimer’s back to beloved places they still remember.
The Halloween project at Emily’s House was the first of its kind under the Wishplay banner, he says.
For anyone who might not be able to go trick-or-treating this year because of their limitations or circumstances, Wishplay will be streaming a live virtual broadcast of a house giving out candy in Leslieville on Halloween, Parker says.
“We want anyone, anywhere to be able to do this,” Parker says.
Andre De Souza put on a virtual-reality headset at the event at Emily’s House and watched along with his daughter and wife. It wasn’t his first time looking through a VR headset, but it was Stephanie’s, he says. She couldn’t have been more excited, De Souza says.
“If you bring her something new, it’s fantastic for her. It was very special,” he says.