By Maddie Keenlyside
Sept. 18, 2014
You’re locked in a prison cell, no obvious way out.
You have only your wits and your friends with you as tools to escape.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking – you must act fast, or it will be too late.
That may not sound like fun and games at first glance.
But when volunteer Josie Baker and her partner were hooked when they discovered the “room escape” game phenomenon while on holiday in Singapore.
The game involves a safe space, in this case recreating the experience of being trapped in a cell. The object: to escape, she said.
“We started out in handcuffs and had to find a way to break out of them. There was a code on the wall we had to crack, and objects we had to find in the room to get a key.”
The couple escaped the room. But they didn’t escape the concept.
Hooked, they went on to try more and more of the games, which originated in Japan.
Then, something clicked for Baker.
A board member at the Voluntary Resource Centre in P.E.I., she realized the concept might make an excellent fundraiser.
On the weekend of Sept. 13, the centre held a grand opening for its own escape room series, P.E.I. Escape Rooms.
It is the first of its kind on the Island and one of a handful in North America, the only she is aware of that exists to raise money for charity, Baker said.
The non-profit centre has been a hub for community groups and organizations in the private sector for 35 years.
“We’ve had a lot of different groups grow up here.”
It provides resources, access to a boardroom, a mailing address, office space and more to non-profit organizations in Charlottetown, she said.
But every year, there is less and less funding for such services. Government cuts have hit all social programs, including social organizations, community building and other things, especially environmental groups, she said.
“They think by cutting social services, they can grow the economy. This has been going on for a long time, especially over the last six to eight years.”
Katimavik lost its government funding in 2010, and CUSO closed down its operations in the Atlantic provinces, she said.
Though they’re open as an office from Monday to Friday, Baker realized hosting escape room games could be just the fundraiser they needed.
They are booking two rooms prepared for the games, and they can take small groups of four to five in each.
“There are two rooms so far – the House Room, which is a little spookier and more challenging, and the Office Room, which is less challenging, but people seem to enjoy more.”
The puzzles inside the room need to be done in sequence in order to get out, she said.
“It’s really challenging, and a great team-building exercise.”
Some visitors have mentioned worrying about claustrophobia – from being locked in a room – but they found there’s nothing to fear, she said.
“Being trapped is more symbolic than a reality. It’s more about solving the puzzles. There’s an emergency key on the door, and buttons for emergency communication.”
So far, about 60 per cent of participants don’t complete the puzzles entirely, but all have had fun in the process, she said.
The grand opening was helpful, and in terms of being able to meet rent for the month, helped meet their goals. But the organization still needs funds to continue functioning, she said.
“In terms of being able to cover the rent for the month, we met our goals. But at this point in Canadian history, and in general, governments are interested in industry, not community work. We’ve seen that across the board.”
Even larger, national and international organizations are cutting back.
“We lost a major organization, CUSO. They closed down in the Atlantic provinces. They had an office here in Charlottetown that had to be shut down.”
Small businesses have been having a difficult time too, she said.
“The economy is hard. It’s a system-wide problem”
Craig Asano, executive director of the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada, said there is simply not enough money available through traditional venues.
“Times are tough. If organizations don’t receive what would normally come as an annual grant, they have to look at cutting or slashing their programs.”
Creative ideas like the escape room game and crowdfunding can help, he said.
“They can ensure the dollars are spent where they’re needed the most to fill the funding gaps left by cuts in provincial government financial services.”
Tools like Facebook help organizations connect to potential donors, he said. And the Voluntary Resource Center’s P.E.I. Escape Rooms is just one example.
“It’s engagement. They’re creating these communities of like-minded people, some they know in person, some online.”
Using online and viral tools to solicit thoughts and ideas, organizations like the centre can help make their fundraising goals achievable, he said.
“It has significant applications, and we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
People need to see beyond the money, he said.
“It’s about the connections and all of the outcomes from the engagement and exchange of information and ideas and support. All of that great stuff.”
Baker said P.E.I. Room Escape is booked fairly solid for the next while, and they are assessing whether or not they can continue to offer it past Christmas.
“Right now we’re figuring out staffing. We have some new volunteers and only two of us know how to train them.”
Anyone interested in participating can book a session by calling the Voluntary Resource Center at 902-368-7337 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a maximum of four to five people per team.