By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
NEVADA — Who says you have to be all grown up to be a super hero? Heck, you don’t even have to be in kindergarten yet.
On May 7, the 17 “Superheroes of Kindness” from St. Mary School’s Early Childhood Education Center — aged four and five — joined forces with two grown-up heroes from the Kansas City area’s Guardians of the Ribbon, Dave Gardner and Hollie Roberts, on their biggest mission yet.
The children gave out daisies and hand-colored paper hearts to the support staff of Cottey College while Gardner and Roberts, arriving from Kansas City in a pink fire truck, spread awareness of cancer and its devastating effect on women among the two-year college’s 350 students.
And there to enjoy every second of it was Kristal Burns, the Missoula, Mont., teacher who started the growing “Superheroes of Kindness” movement just two years ago as a way of teaching her students that nobody is too young or too little to make a positive difference.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Burns said, as she watched the children make a big difference in the day of dozens of the college’s cooks, housekeepers, groundskeepers, maintenance workers and students.
And it also made a difference for the children and their teacher, Megan Murphy, as well as their principal, Nancy Coffer, and the man who brought “Superheroes of Kindness” to Nevada, Phil Bures, whose “Clark Kent” job is as the city’s Park and Recreation Department’s mild-mannered community center supervisor.
Just before Burns and her idea began to receive national media attention last year, Bures discovered her and “Superheroes of Kindness” on a Facebook page.
“I thought that this was a perfect way for pre-schoolers to learn kindness and sharing and doing nice things,” Bures said.
But selling the idea to Nevada’s early childhood education centers was a tall building he couldn’t leap in a single bound — until he talked to Coffer at St. Mary’s.
“They were the only school willing to take on the challenge,” he said. “Everyone thought I was crazy.”
In only their first year, Nevada’s superheroes have spread their own super powers to make people happy to senior citizens, city employees, firefighters, police officers, and even politicians on the city council, with whom they shared hand-colored Easter eggs.
Coffer said she was only too happy to serve as the pilot project, the first “Superheroes of Kindness” south of Missoula, Mont.
It fit perfectly with the school’s mission to educate children to be caring, giving adults in the Catholic tradition, she said.
“It’s service,” Coffer said. “We want to teach kids to do service, and we also talk to them about being like Jesus.”
And they get it even at their very young ages, said Murphy, their teacher.
“When we go out on a mission, they understand what we are doing,” she said. “They love it.”
Every time Bures arranges a “mission” for the super heroes, be it a lunch visit to the senior nutrition program or a visit to the offices of elected county and city officials, it takes work.
But when he sees how easily a child can bring a smile to an adult’s face, it doesn’t seem like work at all, he said.
“The smiles are worth all the craziness,” Bures said.
Burns said the program is far more than a bunch of cute, little kids interacting with lonely adults for a few minutes.
“People think it is a cute idea at first, but then they see that it actually does something,” she said.
“Our goal is to teach them that they are not too small to be a part of a community,” Burns said. “We teach them that they have skills and how to use them to make their community better.”
Burns said she was thrilled to learn that “Superheroes of Kindness” transported nearly 1,500 miles from Missoula to Nevada without a hitch. She said she is receiving inquiries from around the nation, as well as Web hits from 90 countries, and is confident that the program will take off.
The trip to see for herself was well worth it.
“They are doing awesome. Why wouldn’t I come?” Burns said. “Once you go on a mission, it’s hard not to do it again.”
And this one was extraordinary, she said.
When Bures learned that there was a Kansas City chapter of the growing “Pink Heals” movement some 90 miles away, he contacted Gardner and Roberts, who are engaged to be married, and invited them to add a deeper dimension to the final “Superheroes of Kindness” mission of this school year.
Gardner and Roberts said they were only too happy to oblige. After all, that’s what they signed up for when they heard “Pink Heals” founder Dave Graybill speak in Topeka just two years ago.
Graybill, a former minor league pitcher whose baseball career was cut short by a shoulder injury, established “Pink Heals” specifically for real life heroes — firefighters and police officers — to spread awareness of how cancer is particularly deadly to women.
“One in eight women will be diagnosed with cancer at some time in their lives,” Gardner said. “One in three of those women will be diagnosed with breast cancer.”
“Pink Heals” draws attention by travelling wherever it is invited in a pink fire truck, with the driver garbed in pink firefighter’s gear, and inviting people either touched by cancer themselves or who have had a loved one either survive or lose that battle to sign the bright pink fire truck with a permanent marker.
Gardner and Roberts brought “JennieLee,” an out-of-service pumper donated by the City of DeSoto, Kan. And even that name is special to the couple.
“Jennie” is for Gardner’s Aunt Jennifer, a cancer victim. “Lee” is for Marcella Lee, Roberts’ mother who is a cancer survivor.
Last year, Gardner and Roberts took their own vacation time to join Graybill’s national tour, just to let women know that they cared.
“It was awesome,” Gardner said. “When they see the fire truck, they are like, ‘Somebody is here to help us.’”
Roberts said personal experience taught her how important it is just to know someone cares.
“When my mom was diagnosed, my sisters and I were at a loss. Where do you turn for support, or just an ear to listen to you?” she said.
“If we can give just a hug, or listen to their story, that is so important,” Roberts said.
That also makes them “Superheroes of Kindness,” which Burns is certain can work in any pre-school, public, private or religious.
“Kindness and caring doesn’t matter what our religious belief is,” she said. “It’s the basis of everthing we all believe in.”
More information about “Superheroes of Kindness” can be found online at superheroesofkindness.blogspot.com, or at the Superheroes of Kindness page on Facebook. More information about the Kansas City Guardians of the Ribbon, including scheduling a visit from one of the chapter’s two pink fire trucks, can be found online at www.kcguardians.org. More information about Dave Graybil’s “Pink Heals” can be found at www.pinkfiretrucks.org.