CHAGRIN FALLS (WJW) — For the heroic children battling debilitating or life-threatening illnesses or coping with mental health challenges or trauma, Lisa Kollins helps them find their own inner superhero.
Then she and a widespread team of creatives bring those heroes to life.
It’s a way to channel the children’s resilience, and get them to ask themselves, “What would my superhero self do in this moment?” said Kollins, founder and executive director of The Superhero Project.
The Chagrin Falls nonprofit, founded in 2017, pairs those children with volunteer artists to collaborate on a super-powered alter-ego that embodies the child’s strengths and ideals — creating something that transcends their diagnosis and gives them a new way to look at themselves.
“It’s one thing to see yourself pictured in a wheelchair. It’s another thing if that wheelchair has rocket boosters and it’s shooting across the sky,” Kollins said.
The origin story
Like most superhero origin stories, Kollins said The Superhero Project began after she chanced upon something magical.
Six years ago, Kollins was working as a counselor at Camp Sunrise, an Ohio summer camp for kids impacted by HIV and AIDS. The theme of that year’s camp was “finding your inner superhero,” she said. The campers were asked to describe the kind of superhero they’d like to be. Then on the last day of camp, they were surprised with illustrations of those heroes.
“I was just blown away by how beautiful they were, how powerful they were and how meaningful they were,” Kollins told FOX 8. “When we saw the kids’ reactions, I recognized I had sort of stumbled into something.”
In 2017, she started putting her free time toward a website and social media presence and connected with University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s to interview their patients and help them find their superpowers.
They would chat for while to learn about the patients and the good they’d like to do — sometimes for up to an hour, depending on how many ideas the kids can bring, Kollins said. Then the group’s volunteer artists helped them craft a personalized superhero based on “how they want to make change and how they want to help people,” she said.
The superhero posters the kids get later — at no charge — are meant to be “a representation of the young person’s strength, courage and resilience,” she said.
Quickly, The Superhero Project took flight. Requests started coming in from outside the hospital, then from outside Cleveland, and later from outside the country.
“It just kept growing,” Kollins said.
“In 2020, an angel [donor] stepped forward with a gift and said he’d like to see what we could do with a little bit of money,” she said.
So Kollins formed a 501(c)(3) and recruited a board of directors. Soon after, she left her job at Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies and started working full-time as its executive director.
‘A special moment we’ll never forget’
Nikki Montgomery’s son Richie was one of the first kids to be illustrated by Kollins’ group. The Euclid boy has a rare genetic condition and uses a wheelchair, his mother said. They connected with The Superhero Project while Richie was a patient at Rainbow Babies & Children’s, where the nonprofit was interviewing subjects.
Richie became “Electric Force” — inspired by his fascination at the time with electric trains — who can speed through the air, sending light beams with happy faces that bring people joy.
“As a parent with a child that has medical issues, it can be stressful. This is one of those things that doesn’t add stress — it was just more fun,” Montgomery said. “It was such a fun and joyous thing to get the poster.”
Montgomery, who’s an educational psychologist, teacher and patient advocate, said for the kids, the posters are positive self-reflection on an idealistic image of themselves — rather than on the things that make them different from other kids. It was “empowering” for her son, she said.
The poster still hangs over his bed.
“I love that this can be a part of his daily life and identity,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery has since joined the project’s board of directors — “because I believe in it so much,” she said.
The nonprofit this year marked its 1,000th superhero poster since it began interviewing pediatric patients at Rainbow Babies & Children’s, Kollins said. It’s worked with about 450 artists in 25 countries and drawn up posters for families across the country, as well as from Canada and overseas.
“Super Ben” (pictured above) draws power from his “energy tube” and subdues villains by firing tomatoes from a slingshot, says the boy’s father in a video message for the nonprofit on its five-year anniversary this year. Ben and his trusty sidekicks, brothers “Hazza123” and “The Happiness Ninja” formed The Lightning Squad.
It’s been three years since Ben’s angelversary, his father says. The poster hangs framed in their home.
“We walk past it and we see it every day. We still have Ben flying high above us, looking out for us, looking out for his brothers, taking care of the bad guys and making good in the world,” he says.
“When he saw Super Ben, it was quite a special moment we’ll never forget.”
Kollins said many of the group’s superhero posters have since become memorials. Its heroes have faced serious or fatal illnesses like cancer, sickle cell anemia and Sanfillipo syndrome, as well as lifelong diabetes, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, she said.
But they don’t talk about the children’s illnesses or adversities during the interviews, unless the subjects choose. Rather, they focus on who they are as an individual or what they like to do.
“When a child is going through an illness or learning about a disability, they’re many times asked to learn what the issues are, what the deficiencies are. We flip that on its head,” Kollins said. “We’re really interested in getting to know who they are and what their strengths are and what their parents love the most about them.”
‘How superheroes connect with people’
The superhero metaphor is “entrenched in people’s minds,” Kollins said. But when she asks her workshop groups to describe a superhero’s qualities, things like super-speed or super-strength aren’t the first things that come to mind.
Instead, they describe their willingness to stand up for what they believe; their place in the community — “a whole list of values that are not part of the supernatural, but are how superheroes connect with people,” she said.
For some families, the superhero posters are “just something fun to do,” Kollins said. For others, the drawings can have “significant impacts,” boosting kids’ confidence and their connections to their families and communities.
“I think that’s where the power of The Superhero Project comes in,” she said. “They remind kids and teens who might be going through a tough time that they are contributing to the world; that they are part of the world in a very real and important way.
“An illness or a disability can be very isolating. This gives them the feelings of connection and a reminder of what’s cool about them.”
Elizabeth Short, a professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and director of its Early Intervention program, said superheroes can be a focus of meditation for kids — and using comic book characters makes that practice easier for them to comprehend.
“Thinking about something beyond yourself and not focusing on yourself or the stress and pain you’re experiencing — that’s a very effective strategy,” she told FOX 8. “The tricky part for kids is it’s hard for them to transcend time and space.
“That’s why the superheroes are something that’s more age-appropriate and something they can relate to.”
Short said she thinks the project could expand to help children with developmental disabilities or who are emotionally stressed. It gives kids a means to explore their personalities and ideals beyond their illness or their difficulties in life and “to remember every one of us is unique,” Short said.
It also helps parents focus on their children beyond their disease. For families dealing with chronic illness, it can at times be an “overbearing” experience, she said.
“We get so focused on the disorder, we forget the kid is more than the diagnosis,” Short said. Instead, they can focus on “the cool traits of that child.”
“Everybody has them,” she said.
To learn more about The Superhero Project or to donate, visit its website. The group is currently in need of more volunteer artists to help the kids’ superheroes come to life. Check the group’s artists page to learn more.
This is the last part in a three-part series. Click here for more.