“We can be heroes, just for one day.” For the volunteers of Project Superhero, that line from the classic 1977 David Bowie song is the synopsis of a day spent with one of the many lives they have touched in the past year since their nonprofit organization’s founding. These superheroes have one day to help a child dealing with a physical or mental illness escape from their reality, and live in a world where everyday superheroes exist.
Standing outside the baseball diamond at Swinson Park in Morehead City, dressed in his movie-quality Captain America costume, Project Superhero co-founder Rodney Leary recounts how the adventure began with a “puffy” Batman costume. That “puffy” costume made two appearances that sparked the idea for Project Superhero — one when he wore it to his eldest daughter’s school to read books, and the other in an effort to give back to the Ronald McDonald House in Greenville.
The need to give back to the charity came after he and his wife and Project Superhero co-founder Sarah Leary were there for a week while their newborn daughter underwent procedures for lung complications.
“While we were there we … saw a lot of families that were there and had been there for months,” Leary said. “We were thinking about ways to give back to the Ronald McDonald House, and my wife and I started thinking about the superhero idea.”
In addition to playing Batman for his daughter’s school, Leary and his wife also drew inspiration from viral Internet videos of people dressed as superheroes bringing joy to the lives of friends, loved ones or their communities.
With that idea in mind, the Learys jumped in and haven’t looked back since.
“We started the nonprofit and then began soliciting the community for sponsorships and we have a bunch of wonderful sponsors that are local businesses,” Leary said. “With their sponsor money we bought all these amazing costumes and in the past year we have been to the Vidant James and Connie Maynard Center twice … the Duke Children’s Hospital, the University of North Carolina Children’s Hospital, and locally we have done everything from the Boys and Girls Club to all the Relay for Life races.”
The costumes have come a long way from the “puffy” Batman suit, and the Learys have recruited a small group of volunteer superheroes along the way to play the different characters. Leary usually plays the role of Batman, Captain America, or Spiderman, while Sarah either dons the Supergirl or Wonder Woman costume. The additional volunteers have helped fill the gaps with other popular superhero characters.
The cause of the day was League of Their Own and Captain America, Supergirl, Catwoman and Spiderman had spent a warm July afternoon with the families in attendance. Catwoman and Spiderman’s secret identities for the day were Austin Purifoy and Sean Willis – two teenagers that attend martial arts classes with Leary’s daughter.
Leary said their 8- and 3-year-old daughters love the fact that mom and dad have alternate superhero identities, and are eager to participate.
“They love it … they want to be as involved in it as they can be,” he said. “They volunteer now, helping us hand out cards and fliers at festivals, and they both have their own superhero suits to wear at the appearances that make sense. But when we are working they know not to call us mom or dad.“
While they did not expect to be as in demand as they are now, Leary said they knew there was the potential for big success.
“At times I feel a little overwhelmed, it has blown up a bit quicker than we thought,” he said. “We thought it would be big because everyone loves superheroes, but for the amount of people who have asked us to come it has been a lot — almost every weekend.”
With each of the Learys having day jobs, Project Superhero consumes a lot of their free time, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When I am using a vacation day or a sick day from my regular jobs I would rather use that time to go do something wonderful like this,” Leary said looking out at the crowd of families gathered for the League of Their Own event.
During a lull in the conversation, Leary’s (or Captain America’s) keen eyes spot a child across the field that may have fallen. Summoning the speed of Supergirl, Sarah darts across the field to lend a helping hand. It’s par for the course for this duo.
At each and every appearance the Learys have a moment that sticks with them. Rodney Leary said often the visits to the children’s hospitals have the most profound effect on their team of superheroes.
“We had one visit with a little boy who was undergoing cancer treatment and we came in, he was shy at first, but then he smiled and gave us hugs, started taking pictures with us, and the mom started crying,” Leary said. “She told us that was the first time he had smiled in days. When a group of superheroes walk into the room and give him a Captain America toy to play with it turns his day around for a little while and make his day brighter. That is what touches us.”
“That reaction comes from kids of all ages too, not just the little ones,” added Sarah. “We have seen teenagers close to 20 years old that are in the hospital that have just as much enthusiasm about it.”
When the superheroes make hospital visits they usually bring superhero toys to give to the children, generally items donated from supporters. The group is taking donations now in preparation for visits to Chapel Hill and Duke this fall.
With the sheer number of events they are asked to attend, the superheroes interact with a wide variety of groups — from children’s hospitals to elementary schools. When the superheroes visit a school they conduct “Sidekick Training,” where they go through what it takes to be an everyday superhero, like ensuring physical fitness, getting outside, helping others and helping their community.
With more and more appearances on the horizon, Leary said the superheroes are looking for a new mode of transportation, pointing out the non air-conditioned trailer they currently haul their gear in and use as a changing room. The vehicle of choice for Leary would be a used ambulance the group can outfit, use for storage, as a changing area, and adorn with decals to let the community know it’s no ordinary ambulance. Then, the superheroes will be able to attend more events while arriving like any good superhero vehicle — with style, flair and air conditioning.
One year in, the Learys cannot believe the number of lives they have touched. At each event Rodney Leary said the superheroes try to make sure they spend a moment with every single child or adult that is interested. Those are the moments that can make a difference in a child’s life, if just for one day, Leary said.
“There are moments at each of our visits that are special,” he said. “If we are just a little bright spot in someone’s day that is what sticks with us.”