August 23, 2004 12:00 PM

Ben Durskin

He invented a video game for kids with cancer

Three and a half years ago, Ben Durskin of Greenbrae, Calif., was an ordinary boy of 5—sweet, rowdy and crazy for video games. Then he grew strangely weak and fatigued. He began bruising easily, and when he walked, recalls his mother, Anne, “he’d scream because of the pain in his hip joints.” The diagnosis was grim: Ben had ALL—acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Faced with punishing chemotherapy, he passed his downtime with Donkey Kong, Game Boy and PlayStation. Last summer that sparked a eureka moment.

“I wanted to invent a video game for kids with cancer,” says Ben, now 9 and in remission for a year. “I wanted it to be fun and to help them understand what was going on in their bodies.”

The result is Ben’s Game (makewish.org/ben), a free online site that since its June startup has drawn almost 200,000 hits from around the world. The game stars a boy modeled on Ben, who zooms around the screen on a skateboard, blasting cancer cells in order to collect seven shields that protect against common side effects of chemo: colds, vomiting, chicken pox, fever, rashes, bleeding and hair loss. A player can’t lose: As Ben puts it, “You just keep fighting.” At least two experts—both ALL patients at UC San Francisco Children’s Hospital—give the game raves. “It’s awesome, and it spreads the word about cancer,” says Ryan Osorio, 9. “I like destroying the monsters,” adds Alex Anastassiou, 5. “It’s just like what happens inside me.”

Visionary though he is, Ben couldn’t have launched his virtual war without a coalition of the willing, starting with Mom and Dad. Anne, 44, a marketing manager, and Brian, 40, a hotel-chain administrator, approached the Make-a-Wish Foundation for help finding a designer. A Web post nabbed software engineer Eric Johnston of Lucas Films, who spent six months working with Ben, donating thousands of dollars in time and use of studio facilities. In return, says Johnson, 34, “I got a new little brother.”

Ben’s prognosis is good, and he dreams of playing in the NBA. Not that he doesn’t have a fallback. “If that doesn’t work out,” he says, “I’ll probably be a computer-game designer.”

Sasha Bowers

Her day camp helps kids who live in shelters—as she once did

From age 5, Sasha Bowers was frequently homeless. Her single working mother, Linda, couldn’t cover rent, so Sasha and her little sister Misha spent most nights with her in Columbus, Ohio, shelters—fighting hunger and bugs, kept awake by snores and children’s screams. “I never knew if I was going to be put out,” says Bowers, 15, “or taken away from my mother.”

Two years ago they were finally able to afford an apartment, thanks to Linda’s new job as an office cleaner. But Bowers hasn’t forgotten where she came from: She’s the driving force of a summer day-camp program at the city’s Franklin Park Conservatory, where about 175 kids, many homeless, enjoy sports, fishing, gardening and, for a while, feeling like kids. “When I was in shelters, there were no safe places to play,” says Bowers, who presented her idea in April 2001 to the Youth Empowerment Program, an Ohio group for the disadvantaged, which helped her set it up. “I wanted to create a place that was fun, where kids could stay out of trouble while parents find jobs and housing.”

The critics approve. “I love making touchdowns,” says one 9-year-old. “I love planting sunflowers,” adds another. Formerly homeless teen counselors find the camp life-altering. “[In shelters] the food was terrible, milk was spoiled—70 families and no window,” says Alwiya Shariff, 16. “But this is fun and fulfilling. It gives you confidence, ’cause you know you’re helping others.”

For Bowers, self-esteem was hard won. A bright student, she bounced among eight different schools, struggling to keep up. “It’s hard to settle into school and act like everything’s fine,” she says, “when it’s not.” But she turned the corner in an after-school education program for shelter kids. “No matter what situation you’re in,” Bowers says, “you can always help make things better.”

Jacob Komar

Got an old computer? He’ll rebuild it—then give it to the poor

A trip down memory lane with Jacob Komar: At 2, he first typed DOS commands on a computer. At 4, he read his first computer manual. At 6, he could dismantle and build a computer. Detect a theme here? At 9, Jacob topped himself: He started a program to refurbish discarded computers and give them away to needy families near his home outside Hartford, Conn. Soon to be a University of Hartford sophomore—at 12—he has doled out some 200 machines so far. “People ask, ‘Don’t you want money?'” Jacob says. “I mean, that’s the whole idea. It’s free.”

Shenell Payne is grateful for that. A single mother of three, she received a Power Mac 5200 last year, which her kids now use for homework. “I wish more people were like Jacob,” says Payne, 33, a dental hygienist.

Jacob literally learned the keyboard on his mother’s lap—and her laptop. Now a school tech consultant, Alijca Komar, 43, would hold him as she typed. “As soon as he could say words, he’d be asking, ‘Can I try? Can I try?’ ” says Alijca, whose husband, Andy, 42, is a school science administrator. In first grade Jacob and his pal and future partner Jimmy Stefanik, now 12, started rebuilding cast-off family computers. Then, in 2001, a custodian showed Jacob a garageful of school desktops bound for recycling. “It came together,” he says. “Why don’t I refurbish them and give them to kids who can’t afford them?”

He took the idea to local community-service organizations, which have provided a running list of applicants. Now he and Jimmy teach other kids to follow in their footsteps. “One of the things that keeps me going is the look on kids’ faces when I deliver a computer and set it up,” Jacob says. “It’s like Santa Claus has come.”

Ryan Hreljac

He raised $750,000 to build water wells in Africa

In Angolo, Uganda, 5,000 villagers, young and old, lined the road, clapping in unison for a visiting hero. They honored him with the ceremonial gift of a nanny goat, then celebrated for hours. Who was this icon? Nelson Mandela? Muhammad Ali? No, his name is Ryan Hreljac. And at the time—in July 2000—he was 9 years old.

To thousands of Africans who struggle to find safe drinking water, however, the Kemptville, Ont, seventh-grader is a savior. Now 13, Hreljac has raised almost $750,000 in six years, all to build wells in seven African nations. He has addressed 50,000 people in Ottawa and schmoozed with Prince Charles. Yet “he’s such a regular kid,” says Meghan Walker, director of Millennium Kids Canada, a group for young social activists. “That’s what makes him so powerful.”

To think it all started with a first-grade project. When his teacher launched a fund drive for African relief, Ryan was shocked to hear of conditions there. “They had to walk five miles to get a bucket of clean water,” he says. So he asked his parents, Mark, 44, a police detective, and Susan, 44, a community consultant, for $70, which his teacher said would help fund a well. They agreed—if he earned the money doing chores. Four months later Ryan brought $70 in a cookie tin to an Ottawa charity that boosts water supplies in developing nations. He started speaking at rallies and drew huge press; checks poured in, many made out to Ryan’s Well, inspiring the name for a foundation the Hreljacs started in 2001.

Now, the whole clan of six helps out—including Jordan, 15, Keegan, 10, plus a new addition. On that 2000 visit to Angolo, site of Ryan’s first well, the Hreljacs met Jimmy, an orphan whose father was murdered by Ugandan terrorists and whose mother was sold as a sex slave. Last year, he came as a refugee to live permanently with the Hreljacs. “Now I have a family,” says Jimmy, 15, who hopes to become a lawyer. And Ryan? Two words: water engineer. “I want clean water for everyone in the world,” he says, “but I can’t do it alone.”

Written by Richard Jerome and Danielle Dubin. Reported by Ron Arias in Greenbrae, Robert Calandra in Wynnewood, Anne Driscoll in Hartford, Nancy Matsumoto in Ontario and Barbara Sandler in Columbus

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