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Inspired by virtual photo walks, disabled and elderly share stories of hope

Virtual Photo Walks allow photographers to capture and share 'tours' of popular locations all over the world, giving people a sense of connectedness that they ordinarily wouldn't have. NBC's Ann Curry reports.

By Anthony Galloway, Supervising Producer, NBC News

Within minutes of being profiled on NBC Nightly News, John Butterill was at a loss.

The professional photographer had already received dozens of emails from hopeful people around the country – each physically challenged as a result of disease or age, and each inspired by the possibility of taking a virtual trip of a lifetime. Suddenly 150 more messages streamed in. 

“I would love to see the Grand Canyon,” wrote one viewer.

Others anticipated trips to faraway France, Stonehenge, Scotland, Africa, the Amazon River, Indonesia and the Great Wall of China.

With increased awareness of the virtual tours, Butterill says his organization, appropriately named Virtual Photo Walks, faces new financial challenges to keep up with growing demand.

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Photographer Dominic Phillips is one of 200 volunteers who signed up to host virtual photo walks. Phillips toured the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor in February, live-streaming the images to a group of World War II veterans in Cameron, Mo.

Using Google+, Butterill organizes live, interactive tours of destinations near and far, tapping a network of more than 200 professional volunteer photographers around the world who, he says, are “making the walk for those who can’t."

One woman, a self-described mom, wife and grandmother diagnosed with terminal cancer, could only dream of sand and water flowing through her toes with a tropical drink in her hand.

“I love the ocean and the beaches,” she wrote. “Thank you so much for considering me.”

Butterill founded Virtual Photo Walks in February 2012 and was later joined by technical partner Bruce Garber. As things go in the virtual world, the two have never met in person.

Now organizing photo walks has become Butterill's full-time priority, and he's donated his life savings to the cause.

“We will need significant donations as this is scaling out of control on its own,” said Butterill, who is seeking contributions and recently secured non-profit 501(c)(3) pending status for Virtual Photo Walks.

He says the emails and messages prove his effort is worth it.

“I rarely go out and this program sounds so wonderful because I would love to see what the outside world has to offer,” a person with fibromyalgia wrote.

Another letter, from a mother of three with systemic lupus read: “The only place I have always said I would like to go before I die is Australia but also want to see Europe, Asia and South America. I would love to see snow because I never have.”

One hopeful virtual tourist, diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, wrote: “If I catch a cold it could kill me so I’m not supposed to be in crowds or public places where people could be sick or contagious … I feel as though I could use these to see places that I’ll never be able to go.”

The letters were candid and personal, many detailing lives of hard work and sacrifice before being diagnosed with life-threatening or debilitating illnesses.

“The cancer has spread throughout my body and I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy,” a 50-year-old man wrote. “I saw this on the news tonight and I cannot tell you how wonderful this is! There is so much I’d like to see.”

“I have lupus and am very limited on what I can do and where I can go,” another letter read. “The only time I really ever leave my home is to go to the doctor. It makes my life difficult. I love nature and the outdoors, but it seems that chapter in my life is closed now.”

A disabled Army veteran wrote: “I would love to see around the world through your eyes.” 

One former photographer wrote that he was searching to find even a sliver of his former life. “I would love to see the birds I used to photograph through the lens once again.”

“This would be a lifesaver for my wanderlust and freedom which my cancer and rheumatoid arthritis has taken away from me,” wrote one person who used to travel frequently. “I would love to go anywhere you are going.”

Butterill hopes Virtual Photo Walks can help all of them fulfill their dreams.