Virtual reality headsets let HOPE International share lives of those in need overseas

Published August 1 in print and on LancasterOnline.

A carpenter named John works daily under the hot summer sun to provide revenue for his family. The heat and poverty they experience in Malawi could be considered overwhelming for some, but for John, it is a way of life.

Many people won’t see John’s little corner of the world, as Malawi is not a typical tourist destination.

But with one of several virtual reality headsets at the office of Lancaster-based HOPE International, anyone can experience the bright sun and seemingly endless miles of sand and grass as if they were actually in Malawi.

“We can’t bring everyone to Malawi, but we’re bringing Malawi to Lancaster,” said Peter Greer, chief executive officer of HOPE International.

HOPE International is a Christian organization with a mission to help those in extreme poverty by handing out small loans, from $100 to $2,000, to groups of villagers who then invest it in each other’s businesses.

Savings groups are formed in village churches, and members of the community come together and pray and encourage each other to save their money together.

HOPE International is centered in Lancaster but has several offices in the United States and abroad.

The virtual reality headsets are the latest initiative for HOPE to show the need for aid in countries like Malawi.

“I believed that if we could take people from our community and bring them into the places we serve, then we could introduce them to families,” Greer said. “They would simultaneously see the massive need around the world and what extreme poverty looks like, and we can show them a solution that really works.”

Spreading the word

As a promotion, HOPE sent out Google Cardboard headsets — virtual reality headsets made of foldable cardboard — to churches and other businesses. These virtual reality sets work by incorporating a smartphone into the cardboard set, using glass lenses to magnify what is being shown on the phone.

With the use of YouTube or other mobile apps, videos with 360-degree views become immersive. It costs roughly $6 to make.

“The desire is to give individuals an experience of what it is we do around the world,” Greer said. “There is simply no way that we can get our friends, families and supporters to see the work we do (otherwise).”

Greer also says that this would be a good way for those who are not physically able to go to places like Malawi to have that experience. It’s more immersive than television.

“It’s different than looking at a flat screen,” Greer says. “You feel like you are in the midst of that context.”

Currently, HOPE International has two official videos for their virtual reality headsets, but several more are in the making, Greer said. He hopes to make a tour of the world using virtual reality, virtually visiting the sites that HOPE International has helped through savings groups.

HOPE International also chronicled the story of Fanny Nakhumwa, a woman whose sister passed away, leaving her to suddenly care for seven children on a farmer’s income. She turned to HOPE International and participated in a savings group with her church.

Her story can be seen using the virtual reality headset. After making the video, HOPE International went back to Malawi and presented Nakhumwa with the video. A smile spread across her face.

“It’s a different experience than pretty much anyone’s ever seen,” Greer said. “Apart from being there, it’s the second-best way to experience what it is that HOPE International does globally.”

Greer encourages anyone with the desire to visit Malawi via virtual reality to try one of the headsets at the HOPE International office, 227 Granite Run Drive.

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