By Sue Botos
Bad news, Gotham City. The real Batman and his superhero friends can be found in Rocky River and surrounding metropolises with alter egos ranging from teachers to high school students.
But these superheroes don’t use their powers to capture bad guys. They aren’t in the Justice League or the Avengers. They’re members of “Super Heroes to Kids in Ohio,” and their super strength is the ability to make an ill child smile.
The group was born in August 2010 when Batman, aka Rocky River Middle School science teacher Brian Chulik, was recovering in the Cleveland Clinic following surgery for a ruptured appendix.
“I was able to see some of the children hospitalized with serious illnesses. My friends Scott Smith and Jimmy Meyers were generous enough to return with me in costume to put some smiles on the faces of the kids recovering there,” said the comic book buff.
The trio, sometimes joined by other costumed friends, kept making their visits to the clinic. But when the “Batsignal” was spotted in the sky over Youngstown’s Boardman Center Middle School stadium in August, the superheroes answered the call.
Accompanied by Captain America, Wolverine, Spiderman, Batgirl and other friends, Batman met with 4-year-old Jayden Barber who, after beating one form of cancer, had been diagnosed with another, more rare type. One of his biggest wishes was to meet Batman, his favorite hero.
“With the cooperation of many people from the Youngstown community, we were able to put it all together for Jayden and his family,” Chulik remarked after the event. He added that Jayden is now in remission and received his wish to meet actor Christian Bale (Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises”), who spent the day with the family at Disneyland, picking up the tab.
But everyone knows that many superheroes have sidekicks, so Chulik approached Rocky River High School service learning teacher Kristen Kalinowski, whose class centers around what it takes to make a successful service project.
“I had two students volunteer for one trip. Then they did a couple more and talked about their experience,” said Kalinowski, who, along with Chulik, has been building a superhero wardrobe of costumes. “We’ve been getting so many requests,” she said.
While she had wanted to join in with the caped crusaders, Kalinowski said she let a student use her selected costume for a recent trip to the Cleveland Clinic Rehabilitation Center in Shaker Heights the day before Thanksgiving.
Kalinowski said that while more students would like to get involved, there is a limit due to the availability of costumes, which can cost upwards of $40. She said that she and Chulik have purchased the superhero wear themselves, but may be considering a fundraiser for more costumes.
The superheroing, said Kalinowski, counts toward required service hours for the service learning class. However, once bitten by the program, students find it fulfilling.
“It was a totally different experience than I expected,” recalled senior Annie Artiste, aka “The American Dream.” “When everyone walked in, all of their faces just lit up,” she added. She and “Supergirl” Lauren Rhinehalt made their first trip as superheroes during the pre-Thanksgiving Cleveland Clinic visit, and while they agreed that the experience was an emotional one, they would do it again in a flash.
“There was one girl there who didn’t speak English, and even she was happy and smiling,” Rhinehalt recalled. She said she became interested in participating in the program because of a little boy with a brain tumor who lived on her street. “I wanted to meet more kids like him,” she stated.
Artiste, who was drawn to the program by classmate Bobby Perez, said that even the older kids at the rehab center had their pictures taken with the superheroes.
Both Artiste and Rhinehalt, who plan to room together at Kent State University in the fall, plan on continuing their volunteerism in college.
“You had to hide your emotions,” said Rhinehalt of the superhero experience. “It was definitely tough, but knowing it made them (the children) happy made it worthwhile.”