Helping Others

Superheroes surprise, inspire Sacramento children

Gina Hillmer as Miss America leads other superheroes into the Children’s Receiving Home on Auburn Boulevard on Friday. The team brought bags of clothing and binders, carried by Batman, aka Mitch Darnell, to the children at the home during a visit.
Gina Hillmer as Miss America leads other superheroes into the Children’s Receiving Home on Auburn Boulevard on Friday. The team brought bags of clothing and binders, carried by Batman, aka Mitch Darnell, to the children at the home during a visit. ascharaga@sacbee.com

Even superheroes have issues.

Batman lost his parents as a child and battles depression. Captain Marvel struggles with memory loss caused by brain damage. Superman’s parents died soon after sending him to a foreign planet where he doesn’t fit in.

Psychotherapist Mitch Darnell and his “League of Heroes Inspired” are donning superhero capes and costumes to boost esteem in children battling health issues and those from troubled homes. The league hopes that the back stories of popular comic book characters will help kids realize their own inner hero.

“Every person has the possibility to be a hero,” Darnell said. “It’s not about just people in capes. It’s about the hero within everybody.”

Friday, a troupe featuring Batman (Darnell) and Miss America (Sacramento actress Gina Hillmer) and Princess Jasmine and Cinderella from Vacaville’s Storybook Memories visited the Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento on Auburn Boulevard. The league was founded 11/2 years ago.

The league visits children in group and private homes, as well as medical facilities. Before a troupe arrives, Visits Team Director Cody Holguin finds out which superheroes the kids love and can relate to based on their experiences.

Miss America – the 1940s superhero given powers after a lighting strike, not the pageant queen – can relate to children who have experienced a physically altering event. And nearly all superheroes can relate to those who have lost loved ones.

Some kids don’t always warm up easily. But by the end, they usually come around, Hillmer said. On Friday, one boy seemed upset, but Hillmer knew he wanted to interact with the heroes.

“He had kind of a rough exterior, like ‘I’m not a little kid, I’m tough.’ And by the end, he was having me time him racing back and forth and really being involved,” said Hillmer, 44, who has been with the league for three months.

At the end of every visit, after chatting, hugs, autographs and photos, the kids are left with the superheroes’ email addresses if they want to keep in touch with their favorite masked crusader.

Darnell, a columnist for Health & Fitness Magazine, was playfully roaring about military bases, parades and hospitals as a Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger actor 25 years ago when the idea of the nonprofit league started brewing.

“You go in and you see a kid that’s sick ... and they light up,” said Darnell, 56.

Darnell, chairman of the Sacramento Volunteer Center, founded the league by incorporating the best nonprofit practices he came across from more than 30 years of working in community service, he said.

“My little cliché saying that I’ve made up is there’s no such thing as a bad day when you volunteer,” Darnell said. “It makes life worth living.”

Hillmer said she identifies with some of the children. She grew up in a poorer area in an alcoholic home and became pregnant at 16.

“When I look at other kids who are struggling or just need encouragement, I think about the kid I was. And loved it when somebody was really nice to me,” she said.

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The league members hope their visits help children feel more confident as they approach challenges and difficult times, Darnell said.

“We want to teach kids, that well, ‘Yes, you’re a victim, but you’re also a hero. This is your call to heroism,’ ” he said.

Ashiah Scharaga: (916) 321-1673, @AshiahD

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