Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Pinball Giver

Since 2013, Daniel Spolar’s nonprofit Project Pinball has donated almost two dozen machines to children’s hospitals across the United States. He speaks with Uncommon Journalism about his organization's efforts to bring comfort to severely ill children, their families and their care providers one ramp shot at a time.

A GENEROUS JACKPOT: Since 2013, Daniel Spolar's nonprofit Project Pinball has donated more than 18 units to children's hospitals in 17 states, with at least five more to be installed by year's end. “We’re trying to help these kids and give them these tools they need to help with their stay and their recovery," he said. "It's a physical thing, and that's why it works in a hospital setting." (Photo Credit: James Swift)

By: James Swift

ATLANTA – The Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel is no stranger to business conventions and other large gatherings. The third annual Southern Fried Gameroom Expo held June 10-12 – with its pro wrestling attractions, scantily-clad cosplayers and 1980s heavy metal-tribute concerts – is certainly one of the more unorthodox to ever take place at the venue.

The weekend-long celebration in the shadows of the new Braves stadium effectively transformed the hotel into a humongous arcade, drawing hundreds of hardcore video game fanatics – both enthusiasts of old-school, quarter-gobbling classics like Street Fighter II and Space Invaders and newer, console and PC-based offerings like Smite and Pokken – along with a litany of tabletop gamers and merchants eager to sell their nostalgic, nerdy wares (amid the old VHS tapes and X-Men action figures, one could unearth a long-forgotten board game based on Donald Trump’s 1989 treatise The Art of The Deal.) There was even an appearance by cult-favorite actor Lance Guest, star of – fittingly enough – the campy 1984 sci-fi classic The Last Starfighter, who made no efforts to mask his disinterest in video game culture to attendees willing to spend $30 for a signed photo of himself almost being gobbled up the eponymous Selachimorpha in Jaws: The Revenge.

While there was plenty of impressive new-wave tech on display – the PinMAME-based virtual arcade cabinets are surely the envy of many a mancave-dweller – the true locus of the event was on the hundreds of archaic coin-ops on the showroom floor (all of which were generously set to “free-play mode,” with many adorned with “for-sale” stickers.) In many ways, the rows and rows of retro machines not only served as a palpable, playable chronicle of consumer technologies, but American pop culture as a whole. Wedged in between vintage Ghosts ‘N Goblins, Satan's Hollow, Smash TV and Journey (yes, a game based on Steve Perry and company) cabinets, one could bear witness to a treasure trove of American ephemera via that gloriously outmoded advent, the pinball machine.

With some on display dating back to the 1960s, those bright, blinking devices represent a guided tour of changing cultural tastes and norms in the United States over the past half-century. The folksy, laid-back and sexually-tinged units of the 1970s soon give way to the hyper-violent and militaristic machines of the 1980s, which in turn transform into the technology-obsessed, no-trademark-is-too-obscure, consumerism-uber-alles devices of the 1990s. From Chicago to Hollywood Heat to Judge Dredd, you can almost taste the entertainment predilections of the masses evolve over the decades, one buzzing bumper and stuck flipper at a time.

Amidst the sea of avid video gamers and pinballers – the Millennials rocking The Goonies patches on their denim “battle jackets,” the 50-somethings in cargo shorts trying to best their three-decades-old high score on Robotron and all of the neophyte grade schoolers getting their mitts on an authentic trackball and joystick for the first time – is Daniel Spolar, who trekked all the way from Bonita Springs, Fla. to attend the expo.

“Pinball is so unique that I just can’t home in on one thing that really excites me,” the half-century-old general contractor and realtor said. “There’s something for everybody, that’s what makes pinball great.”

For well over a decade, Spolar has refurbished pinball machines – both the vintage collector’s items of yesteryear (Bally’s 1981 table based on Flash Gordon is his all-time favorite) and the newer models produced by industry titans like Stern and Jersey Jack, whose nostalgia-driven units licensing properties like The Wizard of Oz and Ghostbusters incorporate the the sort of futuristic, audiovisual technology arcade loiterers of the Reagan era could only dream about.

However, Spolar wasn’t there to shatter records in Gorgar or Medieval Madness. Rather, he was there to drum up support for his nonprofit operation Project Pinball, which seeks to bring a little bit of entertainment – and comfort – to severely ill children across the United States.

“I see the impact we have on these kids and their parents with these machines,” Spolar said. “The best moments for me are the introduction during these dedications, were you just see these smiles that come out of nowhere.”

Repairs begin

In 2011, Spolar was contacted by a friend who had recently toured Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. She told the avid pinball enthusiast about a worn and weathered machine in the Chrissy Brown Hematology and Oncology Unit.

It was a model based off the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man films, released in 2007 by Chicago-headquartered Stern Pinball. It was originally donated to the hospital to honor the life of a young patient, Jimmy Schneeberger, who died in 2000 at the age of 11.

“We went down there just thinking we were going to clean the machine,” Spolar recollected. “It needed to be refurbished, it needed more than $1,000 worth of parts.”

Spolar turned to social media to raise funding for the restoration project. One of his earliest benefactors was Norman Love, a world-renowned pastry chef from Fort Myers, Fla., who drew plenty of attention – and contributions – to Spolar’s crowdfunded campaign.

“The mailman was bringing deliveries from all these people who found us,” Spolar said. “If they couldn’t give money, they were giving pinball parts.”

After 112 hours of volunteer work, Spolar was able to bring Spidey back to life. The restored unit proved an instant hit with patients and parents alike; from the outset, Spolar sensed the importance of the coin-op as not just a waiting room diversion, but a stress coping tool.

“We started to get an overall picture from their testimony of how much it was needed in that setting,” he said. “They used it as their own form of therapy to deal with what they were dealing with throughout the day.”

Even physicians and child life specialists took a fancy to the machine – not only by proving a worthy bargaining chip to persuade patients to undergo their treatments, but by giving them a pressure-relieving apparatus of their own.

Seeing just how much of an impact the machine made at the hospital, Spolar began mulling the possibility of bringing pinball to other children's health care facilities. This ultimately led to the formation of Project Pinball, which was officially certified as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in Aug. 2013.

Initially, he said some hospitals were hesitant about the idea. “They had this misconception that all pinball was the older machines, the risqué and sexist machines,” he said. “They didn’t realize that pinball has shifted to modern themes based on current movies, like Iron Man and The Avengers."

Word of mouth spread quickly, however, and before long, hospitals were reaching out to him about bringing Project Pinball to their pediatric wings.

As of late June 2016, Project Pinball has installed machines in 18 children’s hospitals in 17 states. Embarking upon a national fundraising campaign in July, Spolar said he anticipates installing five to eight more machines by year’s end.

“These kids pull at my heart,” said Spolar, who refuses a salary for his full-time volunteer work. “We’re trying to help these kids and give them these tools they need to help with their stay and their recovery.”

The power of the tactile

For many Project Pinball beneficiaries, the nonprofit's donations are their introduction to pinball – or, at least their introduction to physical pinball.

“I play PlayStation and Xbox and even PC, but I’m sitting at a computer or I’m sitting in front of a TV with a controller,” Spolar said. “But with pinball, you have to get up out of bed … you have to stand in front of it and interact with the machine in a central location.”

Granted, many patients have experienced the medium via iPhone and iPad applications. Alas, Spolar said the leap from virtual pinball to physical pinball constitutes an entirely different player experience. Some Gen Z tykes and tweens are a bit intimidated by the units at first, but as soon as they start fiddling with flippers and see the balls bouncily bop off the bumpers, the apprehension quickly blossoms into good, old-fashioned tactile joy.

“It’s a physical thing,” he said, “and that’s why it works in a hospital setting.”

The machines are just as beneficial for the adults who frequent such facilities, he adds. The retro charm gives parents – many whom have fond recollections themselves off all the iconic boards of the 1980s and 1990s  a bonding mechanism from their heydays to share with their children. And it even inspires teamwork among siblings; he recounts watching one patient in a cast play a machine, with a little bit of freehand help from his brother commanding the unreachable flipper post.

That extends to the personnel of children’s hospitals. He recounts having a lengthy chat with a physician, who said playing the Project Pinball-donated unit helped him cope with the rigors of patient care. He also expressed a great deal of frustration with a mysterious user who always knocked off his top score – as it turns out, the serial dethroner is none other than Spolar himself, who wraps up each of his maintenance visits with a test play.

As successful as Project Pinball has been, Spolar said he is now in talks to expand the program to other fields of health care, including donations to aid stroke recovery patients. “It’s good for eye-hand coordination, because you’re [using] your fingers and tracking what’s happening on the playing field,” he said. “It can help with the disconnection from the pain.”

Bringing pinball to seriously ill children, however, remains Spolar’s primary focus. In addition to forging partnerships with more children’s hospitals, he also said he is doing the groundwork on developing and financing pinball machines specially designed for patients with severe disabilities, including a unit that accommodates wheelchairs and possibly a “sip and puff” accessible device for paralyzed players.

A dedicated man

Over the last four years, Spolar hasn’t missed a single Project Pinball dedication ceremony.

He vividly recalls introducing a young Shrek fan to the wonderful world of skill shots and vari-targets in Omaha, Neb. and watching a pinball newcomer in Boston turn into a hardcore, flipper-button-pounding fanatic before his very eyes. Just as memorable was the patient in San Francisco, who after showing off his stuffed sea animal collection to Spolar, resolved to top the recently installed machine’s factory score. “And he did it,” Spolar said. “It was truly amazing.”

Then there was the little girl in St. Louis. Spolar recalled her walking up to the table dressed in bandages, with ports clearly visible in her arms. “She wasn’t thinking about that,” he said. “She was thinking about playing pinball and having fun.”

The program is greatly admired by pinball manufacturers, with many designers, company big wigs and even world-ranked championship players making appearances at dedication events.

“Normally, the operation is just to make money on locations in those bowling alleys and barcades,” Spolar said. “They love that their products are being used in this manner, to become so therapeutic.”

Spolar said the average commitment is in the ballpark of $6,000. Each machine is set to free-play, with volunteers in the local community tasked with monthly maintenance of the units. If the machines need any repairs, it comes out of Spolar’s coffers.

“We try to build up the community in a city or a state and what do is focus on fundraising to make it happen,” he said. “Once we reach a certain threshold, we activate and start talking to the children’s hospital.”

As far as fundraising sources, Project Pinball relies on various revenue streams. The nonprofit has partnered with Stern, the nation’s largest pinball manufacturer, to raffle off units at steeply discounted rates. For an upfront $50 donation, individuals are placed in a drawing – cut off at 200 entries – for an opportunity to win a brand-new machine worth 100 times their initial investment.

In addition to a general GoFundMe campaign, Project Pinball supporters also raise money for installations through extensive expo touring, with some even drumming up donations via pinball tournaments. “We thrive because of different people taking our idea back to their community and seeing how it fits in with their local hospital,” Spolar said.

The father of three children and two grandchildren, Spolar said he feels deeply for the young patients and families his nonprofit serves. As they stare down unfathomably grave diagnoses and face long, uphill roads to recovery, he said he takes tremendous comfort in seeing their worries, if only for a few minutes, dissipate while playing his machines.

Their bright, beaming grins and infectious giggles, he said, is more than enough compensation for his time and effort.

“It’s for these moments, it’s for these dedications,” he said. “That’s my drive, that’s why we keep going forward.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2016.

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