This past Saturday, CBR News spent the day at Shriners Children's Hospital in Los Angeles with seven members of the Superhero Group, a charity organization whose members visit Southern California area children's hospitals dressed as superheroes. Many of the members have a number of costumes in their ensemble, but on this particular Saturday, Shriners' kids were graced by the presence of Damian Beurer as Batman, Ben Dukes as Captain America, Jessika Hallett as Supergirl, Heather Harris as the Black Cat, Jesse Lopez as Superman, Valerie Perez as Wonder Woman and Aaron Schoenke as Spider-Man.
The Shriners in Los Angles is one of 20 such children's hospitals in the United States, and serves primarily children from the American Southwest and the north of Mexico. Our chaperone on Saturday was Anna Pereira, Manager of Recreation Therapy and Child Life Program at Shriners Los Angeles. "The Recreation Therapy and Child Life program helps the kids to have activities to do here in the hospital," Pereira said. "Either at bedside, if they're on bed rest after having a surgery performed, or having them socialize in group activities. We also in the Child Life department help prepare them for surgery to help decrease their anxiety when they're about to have surgery, or to prepare them for a medical procedure."
It was the fledgling Superhero Group that first approached Shriners and volunteered their time. And even though the group, in its current form, has only been together for a few months, this marked their second visit to Shriners Los Angeles. Most of the group's members have had prior cosplay experience, but the Superhero Group was the brainchild of Jessika Hallett.
"We all kind of met through the whole Comic-Con arena," Hallett said. "Heather [Harris] and I have been wanting to do this for a very long time. We do it for the kids more than anything." Though philanthropy might not have been her goal the first time she donned a costume, Hallett first became aware of the affect she could have on children while on the convention circuit. "And we realized we had more fun with the kids than adults. So I wanted to put together a superhero organization charity, travel throughout California, and go to any type of children's hospital, cancer wards, burn units, etc." For now the Superhero Group is focusing strictly on their charity work, but Hallett hopes that down the line they'll offer their services for paid events as well, like fellow cosplayers The Gotham Public Works.
Beurer, on the other hand, is an old hand at charity work. "I started with my fraternity," Beurer said. "We went to a couple Shriners hospitals dressed as characters. And we used to do it especially on Halloween, we'd dress up, do improv, bring the kids candy and gifts and stuff, and at Christmas we did the same thing. I also got involved doing appearances with friends down in Tampa when I was living there about two years ago." Beurer moved to Los Angeles two years ago and developed a new network of cosplayer friends. "And we just started talking, 'We should do something for the kids, because it's just something that a lot of people who dress in costumes do.' It's just the right thing to do."
Harris first donned her Black Cat costume nine years ago for the Village Parade in Manhattan, but it wasn't until she met up with Hallett at Wizard World L.A. that she first considered charity work. Harris was excited at the prospect, but delegated the organizational aspects to Hallett, who eagerly took the reigns.
For new member Ben Dukes (Beurer's roommate), this visit to Shriners marked his first public appearance in a superhero getup. Beurer recruited his roommate because he looked the part, and Dukes jumped at the chance. "Yeah, let's do it," Dukes told his roommate. "Go out, see the kids, bring them some smiles."
Dukes' first gig as Captain America comes after the death of Steve Rogers in the Marvel U, but Dukes isn't convinced his superhero alter ego is gone for good. "He'll be back," Dukes affirmed. "And that's the wonderful thing about the art form, too, it goes on forever. It's our mythology."
Schoenke's superhero history is also firmly rooted in humanitarianism. "I started doing a lot of work with the police, telling kids not to do drugs and stuff," Schoenke said. "I do a lot of charity work. I work for the Christopher Reeve foundation a lot." Schoenke has also made a name for himself by appearing in a number of superhero fan films, most notably from Bat in the Sun Productions.
Perez first met Schoenke while the two of them were working on Bat in the Sun's "Patient J," but she had also run into Beurer more than a few times in the past, before being invited to join Superhero Group. Perez's Wonder Woman is also well known in comics circles after making a splash at San Diego Comic-Con 2006.
Lopez, too, was recruited to the Superhero Group by Beurer. "We have a blast at Comic-Con," Lopez said. "And [Beurer] just called me up one day and said, 'Hey, you know, it'd be fun if we kind of go out there and do this for the kids.' And when Jessika came up with the idea of putting together a Superhero Group, going to charity events and everything, it seemed natural, it seemed good. I was 100% onboard."
The team is rounded out by costume designer Andrea Davis, who aids the Superhero Group in many and varied capacities behind the scenes. On top of designing many of the heroes' costumes, driver and photographer are just a few of the other hats Davis wears.
Despite their form-fitting spandex, these real-life superheroes had to fight L.A. traffic to get to the hospital on Saturday. And when one considers just how hot it can get in Los Angeles in the summer, donning their head-to-toe uniforms can be seen as nothing short of a labor of love. The day kicked off with a meet-and-greet in the Teen Lounge, where the patients who are well enough to leave their rooms play everything from pool and foosball to video games (thanks to donations from Starlight Starbright and Hollywood Video). The superheroes gave the children autographed pictures of their respective characters, and handed out toys and action figures donated by Cat Jercan (proprietor of DJ's Universal Comics in Studio City). Many of the patients didn't speak a word of English, but the costumes broke the language barrier. The heroes also posed for pictures with many of their ailing fans. And after the festivities in the Teen Center winded down, the heroes visited the patients whose need for smiles was even more dire, the ones who weren't well enough to leave their hospital beds.
The positive effect the heroes had on the children was undeniable, and the hospital staff was just as happy to see them. "We were thrilled to have them," Pereira said. "They visited us once before, we have them today, and then we have them for another visit, and hopefully we'll have them coming ongoing."