Faith leads to virtual reality encounters to relieve stress, prevent suicide

Terry Brown and his wife, Annie Ackerman-Brown, didn’t develop a business plan or research how they could best help young people in mental anguish when they launched BlessedbyKess.

Faith led them to create the nonprofit, which uses virtual reality, or VR, technology to help Tri-Citians reduce stress and improve mental health. Faith led them to leave his successful engineering career in July for a nonpaying job running the nonprofit, which honors his late son, Kess.

Kess, Terry’s only biological child, died by suicide at 19 in December 2018. Terry raised Kess as a single dad before he married Annie and the couple blended their families.

Kess, who graduated from Kennewick’s Southridge High School, was smart, handsome and athletic, his parents said. He was popular with girls and his athleticism attracted college attention during his freshman year in high school

But he struggled with depression and mental health issues. Unable to find support at home, his parents sent him to treatment in Portland and then to Sacramento. Both times he seemed to do well but fell into old patterns when he returned home.

The Centers for Disease Control reported 48,000 deaths by suicide that year, or one death every 11 minutes. It was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause for people age 10 to 34, the CDC said.

As the couple processed his death, they recognized Kess internalized stress until he lost hope. A giver who cared deeply about others, he didn’t know how to take care of himself.

They dedicated themselves to finding ways to help young adults decompress and release stress outside traditional therapy.

Their prayers for guidance led the Browns to Micah Jackson, a Los Angeles entrepreneur who found the answer to his own stress and anxiety by creating a business around immersive virtual reality.

Jackson created interactive suites where guests choose a virtual encounter and relax in high-end massage chairs in suites designed to stimulate all the senses.

His business, Esqapes Immersive Relaxation, is a for-profit enterprise.

The couple said a different use for the immersive VR suites and the programs Jackson wrote. They would use the same technology but as a nonprofit catering to people who need help relaxing, with a focus on young adults. They planned to create their VR encounter suites in a trailer, which they would take to the community.

Brown likens it to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, trailers that drive home anti-drug messages in schools.

Ackerman-Brown, who is in sales, began looking for support for the venture they called “CHILL Encounter” through her church and elsewhere.

Momentum began building last September, when she received Facebook “friend” requests from seven local Realtors she did not know in real life. She challenged her new friends to donate proceeds from home sales that closed in September and October to support CHILL.

They took her on. The campaign netted nearly $6,000 after 23 Realtors agreed to give $200 from transactions that closed during those months to help get CHILL Encounter off the ground. The success led to a fruitful partnership with the real estate community.

The Tri-Cities Association of Realtors, or TCAR, adopted BlessedbyKess as one of its 2020 nonprofit community partners, providing financial and in-person support in the campaign to reduce a suicide epidemic.

“Through its partnership with BlessedbyKess, TCAR hopes to raise awareness of this epidemic and strengthen the mental health of our community,” it said.

The couple presented their vision to about 300 Realtors and closing agents at an annual meeting. Soon, they were invited to present to smaller groups as well.

Brown said the 30-minute format was a challenge. He had to go from discussing suicide to asking for money in just minutes. But the couple persevered, and additional firms committed to support their work.

By February, they had raised $30,000 toward the $160,000 cost of the industrial trailer they hoped to buy. They were ready to make a down payment but decided to hold off. The trailer would be ready in four weeks, not much time to raise the $130,000 balance due at closing.

They prayed on the decision and landed on an intermediate solution — a “pop up” retail spot.

They would outfit two suites in retail space leased for just a short while. They shared their idea with James Wade, a local commercial real estate broker.

Wade directed them to a small shop at 450 Williams Blvd. in Richland and even paid the first two month’s rent.

The couple got the keys on March 1, just 20 days before Gov. Jay Inslee issued the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order that sidelined “nonessential” activity to thwart the spread of coronavirus.

Annie Ackerman-Brown and Terry Brown

The couple cleaned and outfitted the space and waited impatiently for the Covid-delayed shipment of massage chairs, VR gear and other supplies to arrive.

They opened May 22, attracting visitors chiefly through word of mouth. They only take appointments online. This lets them manage customer traffic to avoid anyone congregating outside or arriving before they’ve had a chance to sanitize the suites between users.

Guests choose from 13 “encounters” developed by Jackson — sunsets on the beach, a Chinese pagoda, forests, Japanese gardens and more. Fans, heaters and aromatic dispensers mimic the world the guests are visiting.

If palm trees are swaying in the virtual world, the visitor feels the breeze on their skin. The immersive experience touches all five senses.

“It’s a totally different way to relax both mind and body,” said Brown, who adds that the level of relaxation can be so total it can be disorienting to some.

“We’ve had people take off the headsets and say, ‘How do I get back to Richland?’”

Guests come in all ages. They include recent high school graduates, university students sent home by the pandemic and professionals looking to shed the workaday stress of busy lives. The Browns have been surprised to find CHILL is a popular date night outing for couples as well.

Guests pay $25 for the experience, which lasts about 30 minutes and includes preparation exercises to help calm guests before they settle in. Free and low-cost visits are available.

Word of mouth is giving way to a formal marketing effort to get the word out to the target audience for CHILL Encounter — young people who like Kess who may not know where to turn for help.

They’ve passed out free coupons to high school graduates and invited their church friends to experience CHILL in person. They’re taking out advertising as well and continue to ask for donations to pursue their dream of placing VR suites in places where young people are likely to find them, including schools.

The couple still plan to create a mobile version of CHILL. They are considering an Oregon-built tiny house, which would cost less than the industrial trailer they were originally considering. In the longer term, revenue will support a fixed location, as well as a mobile unit that could travel to schools or other locations.

Follow their progress at blessedbykess.org.

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