By Liana Jacob
MEET THE heroic couple who dress up as SPIDER-MAN and SPIDER-GWEN to visit sick children in hospitals ALL OVER THE WORLD – and they’ve already visited more than SIXTEEN THOUSAND kids.
In June 2014, founder and CEO of Heart of a Hero, Ricky Mena (36) from Pittsburg, California, USA, was struggling financially and was sleeping on his friend’s couch temporarily whilst he got back on his feet.
One night, he had a dream about his deceased grandmother, Alice Brooks, who appeared to him and played a video of Spider-Man visiting children in the hospital and she told him that’s what he should be doing.
Once he woke up, he decided to do just that. With only £249 ($300) to his name, he sold his car and used the money to buy a £1,158 ($1,400) Spider-Man suit which arrived in October of that year and a small pile of toys. At first, Ricky was turned down by hospitals, so he decided to work with special needs and autistic children locally at schools.
Word travelled fast about his good deeds and the positive impact he had on these children, so soon enough he was being asked to visit children at hospitals. He set up his business Heart of a Hero and many people began fundraising for the organisation.
In January 2018, he met his now wife, Kendall (25), who he married just four months into their relationship. She was fascinated by his idea and wanted to join him as ‘Spider-Gwen’.
He and his wife have since visited over 16,000 children around the globe, as well as 22 US states; California, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Arizona, Indiana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and West Virginia. The children are either terminally ill, homeless, bullied or disabled.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Ricky admits that his work has been massively affected as hospitals are no longer allowing special guests to visit the children.
However, he and his wife are determined to keep their mission going and putting a smile on each of the children’s faces despite the coronavirus pandemic, by offering video chats to the kids they would normally see in person.
“The decision to dress as Spider-Man came to me in a dream where my deceased grandmother came to me, showed me a movie of Spider-Man visiting children in the hospital, and told me it was me and that’s what I should do,” Ricky said.
“I actually followed through with it because I felt it was a call to do something greater. A higher calling that was bigger than myself. I saw a world filled with hurting children and thought I’d try my hand at helping as best I could.
“With only three-hundred dollars to my name and feeling like this was more than a dream, I sold my car and used that money to buy a much less expensive car (to get around in), the first Spider-Man suit (that cost me $1400), and a small pile of toys.
“It took me a little over two months to get the custom-fitted suit. When I got it, every hospital said no, so I began working with special needs and autistic children locally (at schools, at spectrum centres, and at home).
“Word travelled fast and before I knew it, I was being asked to visit children in hospitals. I started the official non-profit known as ‘Heart of a Hero’ to house it all because people began sending me money to reach more children.
“I was doing this with the help of a few friends for about four years until I met my wife and she began suiting up with me (as Spider-Gwen) in 2018.
“Since 2014 we’ve seen over 16,000 kids all over the United States and have been as far as London, UK (twice).
“Some are in hospitals, their private homes, in hospice care, and others are in schools, shelters, day cares, or foster homes, but these children come from all different backgrounds, cultural and religious beliefs.
“I’ve seen children from the heart of poverty-stricken areas, and I’ve seen children of wealthy mothers and fathers.
“The contrast and differences between who we see changes daily; for example, one day I was surrounded by the Latin culture at Miami children in Florida and the next I was standing in a London hospital greeting children who are battling cancer with their mother wearing a full Burka.
“Every child is unique and every situation different but our mission to leave love on the table stays the same.
“There really are no ‘typical’ days as Spider-Man. This work keeps you on your toes and you must be flexible, but we routinely make contact with children and introduce ourselves with friendly conversation.
“We offer the children tons of toys specific to their likes, joke, laugh, take pictures, and make sure they know they’ve made a friend for life and aren’t alone.
“I’ve read to children, of course I have played games before, and I’ve also held children as they passed away to not only comfort them, but their parents as well.
“The call to be Spider-Man means to bring joy, peace, and inspiration, but what I must do to answer that call changes with every single visit.”
Ricky says that his job as Spider-Man for these children means constantly travelling around the globe, but with the current climate regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) he has had to limit his visits in the form of video chat, but insists that he must keep his mission going.
“This is a full-time job. After the first three and a half years, I’ve had to limit myself to around forty hours a week because this work became the only part of my life and that wasn’t good for my mental state,” he said.
“In a seven-day-week these days, we spend about three to four days in the suit making the visits happen.
“The other days of the week we are planning the visits, travelling to and from visit locations, and doing tons of admin work like setting up fundraisers, updating our social media daily, calling hospitals and facilities we haven’t visited to possibly visit children there, answering emails.
“The coronavirus has affected us greatly because all of the hospitals and all other facilities medically caring for children have momentarily halted all special visitors from being able to visit.
“Nearly everything this month has been rescheduled or postponed, but we are determined to keep our mission going and have been offering video chats to children we would normally see in person.
“Needless-to-say, we’ve been busy with video chats and the kids love it. We also send out care packages filled with toys if parents permit.
“Our suits already cover one hundred per cent of our bodies and face, but we’ve taken extra protective measures by wearing medical masks under our Spidey masks.
“To us, it’s more about ensuring the safety of the children we visit rather than ourselves and the best way to do that is to protect ourselves as well by taking precautions (and even extra precautions) to disinfect our suits, wash our hands, sometimes keep distance, and even reschedule visits if possible.
“My wife’s role as Spider-Gwen was introduced shortly after we were married about a year ago. After witnessing what I was doing, she asked to be a part of it and after starting by helping hand out toys and taking pictures behind the camera, it turned into her actually suiting up as Spider-Gwen once she was ready.
“She carries the same mission and role as Spider-Man does and it’s been amazing watching her reach children on a different level as a female superhero than I can. It’s empowering for everyone, but especially the little girls we meet.
“Children react in different ways but ninety-nine per cent of the time, it’s excitement. Sometimes children cry and hug us almost as if they’ve waited so long to see us.
“The future goal is to expand Heart of a Hero. Have more heroes in more places, but one big goal I have is to be able to help pay off debts these parents incur while attempting to save their children’s lives.
“My wife and I have no children of our own, but we hope to in the future once we build a better financial stability around our lifestyle of giving.
“Giving back takes an important role in our society and always has. There will always be those in need and it’s our duty as well-bodied individuals to assist who we can.
“It doesn’t always have to be to the extremes my wife and I have taken it, but it’s good to remember, a little goes a long way.
“I may not be wealthy and sometimes we struggle financially, but through giving, my heart is so full, and I am beyond rich in ways that actually matter; even in this world.”