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Couple's wedding funds Google Expeditions for adults with disabilities

Ellen McBurney, bottom left, and her husband, John

Ellen McBurney, bottom left, and her husband, John Kenny, bottom right, test-drive Google Expeditions virtual-reality glasses at Developmental Disabilities Institute in Smithtown in February with clients, back row from left, Laura Ahern, Carol Tate, Mark Hemple and Richard Ramaglia.  Photo Credit: Shelby Knowles

Over the course of an hour, Judy Collazo and Mozella Robinson explored the Acropolis of Athens, toured a fifth-century Christian monastery in Santorini, Greece, and plunged underwater alongside sharks and divers in the Florida Keys.

Collazo, who has a fear of flying, beamed as she hovered 27,000 feet in the air atop Mount Everest.

“That is so cool!” she said.

Robinson and Collazo took their journeys around the globe from a conference room at Developmental Disabilities Institute in Smithtown using Google Expeditions Virtual Reality. The two adults, who live in a DDI group home in East Patchogue, were able to step out of their comfort zones simply by peering through strapless virtual-reality headsets. The viewers provide 360-degree angles of 1,000 different expeditions, transporting individuals to places they might never visit.

DDI, a nonprofit multisite agency that operates schools, residences and outpatient programs for more than 500 children and adults in Suffolk County with autism and other developmental disabilities, has introduced the immersive app as a recreational, educational and therapeutic tool.

Not just for fun

Expanding on Google Expeditions’ recreational value, DDI also plans to use it to help clients cope with sometimes-daunting medical and dental procedures. Using a virtual dentist examination within the app, for example, individuals can gradually acclimate themselves to various anxiety-producing experiences.

“We started looking at these as ways to branch out of them just being fun little toys, and asked, ‘how can we do use it to improve their quality of life?’ ” said Garrett Petersen, DDI’s recreation coordinator. He has been working with Matthew LaValle, manager of DDI’s community-based Without Walls Program for adults, to design custom tours within the app to accommodate individual needs.

“Someone might have anxiety with crowds, or with heights, or dental visits and medical examinations, but now we can show them what they’ll be doing and seeing, and that it’s not that bad,” Petersen said. “When they can’t get through a dental appointment, sometimes they need IV sedation, and it’s traumatic for them.

“We looked at this as a new approach to get them to be able to have successful dental cleanings or have a cavity filled,” Petersen said.

Plus, during the actual procedures, the devices can distract with a virtual escape to a coral reef, beach or solar system.

A couple makes a difference

DDI’s augmentation of Google Expeditions began with a different journey, that of college students-turned-husband-and-wife John Kenny and Ellen McBurney.

The Astoria, Queens, couple have been active supporters of the nonprofit since they were students in 2013 at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens. That year, they joined fellow students in St. John’s Executives in Residence Program to raise funds for DDI by embarking on an admittedly “crazy idea” John and a friend had — to walk from the Brooklyn Bridge to Montauk Lighthouse. The trek spanned more than 130 miles over seven days with stops along the way at four of DDI’s schools.

At the schools, Kenny and McBurney met the adults and children who are clients, befriended staff – and fell in love with nonprofit and each other.  

They continued the walk on behalf of DDI the next two years, then hiked mountains for DDI two years after that. Through these efforts, the couple raised $75,000 for the organization.

Supporting the school naturally figured into the plans for their November 2018 wedding.

“We thought, ‘what better way to celebrate our love and do something for an organization we care so deeply about than to make DDI a part of our wedding?’ ” explained McBurney, 29, chief of staff of a nonprofit that develops and finances public charter schools.

Instead of wedding gifts, the couple asked their guests to make donations to DDI for its virtual reality project, for which a standard kit of eight to 10 headsets costs $5,000. The newlyweds’ initiative raised $10,000.  

“We love DDI and think they’re doing amazing work,” McBurney said. “And as a cool parallel with what people traditionally do with their wedding registries, like ask to go on an expedition or trip somewhere … the fact that these kits let the people DDI works with go to a place they may never go or see something they might not otherwise see -- it seemed like a really great way to support them.”

Adds John Kenny, 28, who works in the financial services industry, “I think what really impresses us about DDI is the wide range of services the organization offers. DDI is there for these individuals and their families at every step of the way … and we’re definitely big supporters of experiential learning and understand how good that can be in education.”

DDI’s director of adult residential services Laura Ollett said of the couple’s contribution, which is being used to purchase two kits, “It was exciting because we’re at the forefront, and one kit of 10 headsets gets us somewhere.”

Back at DDI in Smithtown, after a virtual soar above the Aegean Sea, Collazo put down her headset and praised the experience.

“Every time you feel nervous, this will make you feel good,” she said. “It makes me feel good inside. I have anxiety sometimes, and I breathe in and breathe out, but this will make me feel really good.”

For more LI Life stories, visit newsday.com/lilife.

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