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Superheroes Help Children Through Treatment

Some Tampa Bay area residents who like to dress up like their favorite comic book and movie characters are stepping into a new role. These cosplayers are volunteering their time to brighten the lives of children dealing with serious medical issues.

Marvel Comics superhero the Green Lantern is a regular visitor to one Brooksville family's home.

The doorbell rang at 6:30 p.m., one evening at the O’Connor and Nester home.

“Is that Mr. Lantern?” Patty O’Connor asked her 5-year-old daughter, Cameryn Nester. “Go answer the door!”

Cameryn ran to her front door and threw it open. Standing there was her favorite superhero, decked out in a green and black spandex suit, mask and leather boots. He stepped into the living room and Cameryn jumped into his arms.

“Hey, buddy. How you doing?” He asked her. “And she’s off.”

Cameryn, who had open heart surgery last year, scampered away to grab her small, plastic green lantern. She brought it to the Green Lantern, who is actually New Port Richey resident Ben Jayko.  She told him the light isn't working.

“It keeps turning off,” Cameryn said.

“We’re gonna have to make you a better one,” Jayko said, fiddling with the plastic toy.

Jayko's volunteers to become the comic book superhero for the "M.U.C.H. Foundation," which stands for "Makers United For Children's Hope."

Zachary Hurst is the founder of the group, which started over a year ago. A few dozen volunteers reach out to children who may be living with a disability or facing a terminal illness.

He said visits with children range from a one-time trip to a hospital room to home visits that can span months or potentially years.

"We'll come in and visit them in the hospitals and right before their surgeries,” Hurst said. “We're there when they wake up, we bring them presents and make them custom costumes and involve them in our group."

Hurst said volunteers dress up like superheroes or Disney Princesses as a fun distraction to very sick children. This way, doctors and nurses can focus on the serious stuff.

"Kids genuinely connect with the superheroes,” Hurst said. “We like to have the big three: Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, but we also find out that some children have absolutely fallen in love with the Flash or they attach to the Green Lantern and he becomes their favorite superhero, so we will assign him to that family."

The Nesters certainly attached to Jayko as the Green Lantern. In their living room, Cameryn clamors onto his back.

“Lemme on your back,” Cameryn pleaded.

“Aren't you already there? Jayko said. “What is she a monkey?"

Young Cameryn Nester met the Green Lantern  just before she had surgery at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

His alter ego, Jayko, made her a Wonder Woman crown she refused to take off during the heart surgery.  He loves retelling her reaction to doctors trying to remove the tiara.

"No, Green Lantern says it's mine and I have to wear it all the time,” Jayko said, quoting Cameryn.

M.U.C.H. Foundation volunteers have visited hundreds of children across Central Florida since January 2015. In addition to post-surgery home visits, volunteers also attend treatments with the children, help design lighter-weight prosthetics, and decorate medical equipment with pop culture designs.

Cameryn Nester's 3-year-old brother Blake was born with sacral agenesis,  a condition that causes a shortened and deformed spine. Volunteers are building an Iron Man costume that fits over his wheelchair.

Patty O'Connor, Blake and Cameryn's mom, said the foundation is raising money to get Blake a second wheelchair he can use at his favorite spot -- a local skate park.

“He goes to the skate park and he goes down the ramps by himself. His chair now, he fell once, but he got back up and kept going,” O’Connor said.

O'Connor said the group also is setting a great example for Blake, Cameron and her 7-year-old daughter, Mackenzie. They invite the kids to dress up in characters and join the group at local community events.

“I want my kids involved in this because they're learning stuff,” O’Connor said. “They're not just getting."

Cameryn is just happy knowing her personal superhero keeps coming by. The visits are a perfect distraction from her medical problems.

As for the Green Lantern, and his alter ego, they're not certain what adventures await young Cameryn. But whatever it is, he said, he will be at her side. 

Daylina Miller is a multimedia reporter for WUSF and Health News Florida, covering health in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.