It’s not the average request:
“Can you throw your shield?”
But it is a request Jason Johnson hears a lot from the kids he visits in costume as Captain America.
“I say ‘No, I can’t throw my shield. It will bounce off and break stuff and I’ll have to pay for it,’” explains Jason, Founder and Director of the Central PA Heroes Coalition. The children he and other heroes visit all need a little time away in a fantasy world, where they can be awestruck fans, where they can forget the reality around them. The non profit’s mission is simple: to bring happiness and smiles to all children through the love of costume characters. It just so happens the 60-member roster of heroes specializes in putting smiles on the faces of kids living with debilitating, life-threatening illnesses (and never charges a fee for their appearance).
Jason started transforming into Cap for comic conventions and he met a friend who was doing the same thing for charity. He thought donating his time to visit sick kids was a lot cooler than paying to attend a convention, so he joined his friends Batman and Spiderman at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Ronald McDonald House.
“They were visiting some children out there and they needed a Captain America. I did the visit and it was really eye-opening to me,” says Jason. “I’ve developed long-lasting friendships with some of these kids.”
Captain America is his go-to character, but Jason has been Green Arrow, Star-Lord, and Deadpool. (When he was Star-Lord, his son accompanied him as Rocket Raccoon.)
“But, I always go back to Captain America. He’s probably the most popular character I do, but if Spiderman is around, I might as well just go home,” jokes Jason, who says kids connect to the Cap character’s leadership. Kids also keep Cap, err… Jason, on his toes.
He has to be up to date not just on the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, but also the storylines from comic books, cartoon series, and fan theories, which are everywhere on YouTube.
“I used to read a lot of comics when I was a kid, then I got into video games, but I always loved reading comic books,” says Jason, who now prefers trade paperback editions where he can read a compilation of books or an entire story arc in one volume.* “I look at us as comic book versions of therapy dogs. I’ve been known to just hang out at a kid’s house in costume for an hour playing video games. That was enough for them.”
The Heroes still make rounds to children’s hospitals, but the majority of their efforts have been focused on home visits. They hold annual events like an indoor trick or treat trail in E-Town and fundraising events like superhero breakfasts; appearances at malls, charity drives, and restaurants; and special superhero adventures.
A superhero adventure recently played out for one lucky boy named Noah. Enlisting the power of Lancaster businesses (Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse, Escape on Queen, Premiere #1 Limousine Service, Altana Rooftop Lounge, Visit Lancaster City, The Spice & Tea Exchange, Fox and Crow Studios), Lancaster Bureau of Police, and a bunch of volunteers, Noah was able to live a superhero day with a full-blown, tactical showdown versus Hydra, Thanos, Black Cat, Green Goblin, and more at Lancaster County Park.
“Altana was our Avenger’s Tower,” explains Jason. “Basically, our little buddy Noah was running around with Spiderman trying to stop Thanos.” The event was put into a short film by Aurora Films and the movie captures Jason’s heroics. It’s easy to see how the father of three from Elizabethtown was swept up in the powerful and immediate connection kids have with these characters. His own daughter has taken part in the action as well, dressing as the X-Man—or X-Woman—Jubilee.
“I like to think what they have taken away from the experience is the sense of giving back,” says Jason. “They’re getting to be teenagers now so I’m waiting for it to become embarrassing.”
The “Heroes Family” is big and growing; the recruitment door is always open, even for people who don’t want to dress up. Jason and the rest of his superheroes are always looking for help. Heroes… assemble!
*As both the author of this piece, comic book enthusiast, and Marvel superfan (no costumes though, by Odin’s beard!) I recommend picking up writer Jason Aaron’s Goddess of Thunder which collects Thor numbers 1-5 and will give MCU fans an early look at what might be found in the 2021 movie “Thor 4: Love and Thunder” starring Natalie Portman as Thor.
For more information on the Central PA Heroes Coalition, visit paheroescoalition.com.