One evening last December, 400 men and women in tuxedos and gowns met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to take a trip to a small village in Ethiopia. Few of them had ever been to the East African country before, and while they were scheduled to depart that evening, nobody had a plane ticket. In fact, they wouldn’t need one for the nine-minute virtual visit they were about to make.
The group was gathering at the Met for an annual black-tie fundraising banquet benefiting Charity: Water, a New York nonprofit that builds wells around the world, providing access to clean water for thousands of people every year.
After dinner and before the fundraising portion of the evening began, volunteers from the organization passed around Samsung Gear VR headsets so attendees could watch a virtual reality movie documenting a week in the life of a 13-year-old girl, Selam, and her family who were getting clean water for the first time. The video begins with the girl—whose mother died a year earlier—collecting water she fears is full of leeches and diseases. It ends with a team of workers arriving by truck to drill the well before water gushes into the hot desert sky.
“You could hear a pin drop,” said the filmmaker, Jamie Pent, from Charity: Water. “I was wandering around watching people watch it. There was this one guy who just flew out of his seat, and he was just like, ‘Honey, honey, turn around!’ And he was talking out loud [to his wife]. And there were others who would reach out for their spouse and would grab their hands, and I would know where they were in the film because all of a sudden there would be cheering when they hit water. I saw people take [their headsets] off with tears in their eyes.”
Later that night, donors committed to giving $2.4 million, much more than Charity: Water had expected. That was the first time but not the last, Pent said, that the film led to higher-than-expected donations. During a visit to Charity: Water’s office, one donor, who had already committed to giving $60,000, watched the film and was so moved by the story that he gave $400,000 instead.
Thousands of people have now seen the film using Samsung Gear VR headsets, Pent said, with another 1.5 million watching it on Facebook on mobile and desktop devices, and around 30,000 more viewing it on YouTube (you can watch it below). According to Pent, letting people be virtually present makes all the difference.
“It’s so hard to understand the water crisis when you just hear statistics, and it’s about individuals who are going through this just because of where they live,” Pent said. “Any one of us could have been born there, and we weren’t. But we have the ability to help.”
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