Become a Super Hero for a Day
Imagine speeding through the night in the Batmobile! It would be any kid’s dream. Truthfully, it would probably be any adult’s dream as well, especially one who grew up watching the “Dynamic Duo” of Batman and Robin in the 1960s.
At a secret location somewhere in south Phoenix is a nondescript warehouse. A warehouse like lots of other warehouses and nothing to indicate anything in particular might be housed inside. For those in the know, this is home to something very different than the usual run-of-the-mill business near the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. But before we talk about what’s inside, let’s imagine this journey from the view of a terminally ill child.
A family dealing with all the heartache of a terminally ill child is fraught will a lot of sorrow and down days. Smiles give way to tears and there’s often not enough hope and joy in their lives. While the doctors and hospitals can try their best to comfort the inevitable, there is someone else out there who wants to help, at least for a while, by knocking on the family’s front door with a limousine and a police motorcade waiting. What follows is a journey that gives children super human power for a day and culminates with a crime fighting trip in the Batmobile.
How is this all possible? Thank you to Charles Keller and Erica Cowell and the Batcave that they created, a Batcave that has that has brought joy to hundreds of families around the world.
Via Corsa Sits Down with Charles Keller and Erica Cowell
Ron- How this all began?
Charles- In 2009, I introduced my two boys Chas and Cade to the 1966 Batman television show, which of course I was a huge fan of when I was a kid. Well, they started really getting into the show. They would start making masks out or paper plates and capes out of beach towels, and they would suit up every night before they’d watch the show. And so before too long, I began researching the 1966 Batmobiles.
Ron- How old were they back then?
Charles- Three and Five. So, I started researching Batmobiles, and I ended up about a month later in the shop of George Barris. A bunch of 1966 Batmobile Enthusiasts had organized a day with George and his original team, and so you got to go see the car, meet George, meet the guys who built the cars, owned the cars and revered the car. And there was even one there who just had this impeccable replica. And I left that day saying, “I gotta get the car!” So I crisscrossed the country and ended up buying a replica, a kit car off of Craigslist in Houston Texas.
Ron- Tell me about the Batman appeal, obviously there were a lot of shows that we grew up with. What was it about Batman in particular?
Charles- The thing I like about the 1966 show was the comedy. Ever since ’89, there’s been this long string of Batman movies, and I think the movies are all good. But you know in my view, they’re too dark and too serious. I love how the 1966 show makes you laugh. The guys that acted in it took satire to the absolute limit, and I think it’s something fun because you can show it to three or four-year-olds and not scare them or freak them out.
Ron- The Batmobile was first piece. After getting it together, what was the plan?
Charles– I brought it home and the original plan was to simply have fun with the kids, go down to Dairy Queen, go through the drive-thru that sort of thing and have a ball doing it. Then after a while, we kind of toyed with the idea of how to help charities with it, but it surprisingly was a tough sell. You call a charity you say, “Hi, my name is Charles, I’ve got a Batmobile, I want to help? Click,” you know! They think you’re a little nuts, which is not something too difficult to understand. But over time the phone started to ring, and it would be individual families who would say, “My kid at home is not doing too well, I heard you had a Batmobile. We were wondering if you would bring it by?” So, we did that with a couple of families, and then our third family, was Erika Cowell’s family.
Ron- When was this?
Charles– This was December of 2009.
Ron- The charity really began as soon as you got the Batmobile, so it almost went hand in hand.
Charles– The charitable work did, but you know we were very disorganized. It was just me driving around in the car for a couple of years. We’d hear about a family or overtime we’d contact charities and ask them, “Would you like us to stop by and see a family that maybe needs a reason to smile?” About 20 families into it, we started integrating, giving small checks to the charities that nominated the kid.
It was about our 20th kid by the name of Ethan Daniel, and Ethan refused to get in the car. At this time, we’d shoe up and there would be half dozen or 10 people sitting in the driveway of a home, it was very informal. We drove up and Ethan would not get in the car. I used some tricks where I would put the child’s mom in the car, or their grandma, but it didn’t matter. Ethan would not get in the car. So, I talked to him and I said, “Dude, why won’t you get in the car? What do we need to do to get you inside? You really need to go for a spin with your dad at the wheel!” He looked at me and said, “Why would I get in the Batmobile unless it’s going to take me to the Batcave?”
Charles – I had come up with a lot of good answers to the crazy questions kids would ask, but I could not come up with one this time. But I thought about it over time and dammit, the kid was right. If there is a Batmobile and if Batman and Robin do exist, there needs to be a Batcave
About that time, I had rented two spaces. I was getting a little bit more earnest in my car collecting and didn’t have a lot of room at home to store all the rigs, so I rented the first of the two spaces just to store some of my cars. I was down here with my very first volunteer, Elizabeth Allingham, and we were parking the cars. They weren’t fitting the way that I had envisioned and I remember shaking my had and saying, “You know what, if I don’t start today, if I don’t start building the Batcave right here, right now, I’ll never do it.” So I looked at Elizabeth and asked her, “Will you help me out?” We got it done and most of what you see today is all her work.
Ron – Tell me some more about the charity work, with the rides and nominated kids.
Charles – We kept doing home visits, about one or two a month, and eventually we got up to the point where the cave was ready to see its first customer. It was 2012 when the first family went through.
It is simply through a lot of hard work, much of it being Erika’s and the amazing army of volunteers that we have had. We’ve been able to get up to about 127 charities by asking families to nominate a charity that has been helpful to them, and we always encourage people to choose smaller local charities, because the smaller charities can really take that money and use it.
Ron- Tell me about Erika’s involvement.
Charles- I received a call in December 2009, and it was from Make-a-Wish’s wish granter. They told me that there was a family whose little boy had leukemia and was being discharged from the University of Arizona in Tucson. The family had been told it was terminal, and hospice was moving in. The wish granter wanted to know if I could bring the Batmobile out to lighten the mood. The week before, I had actually done a charity event and hired a Santa Claus. So, I called Santa and told him the story and asked would he come along. He agreed and wanted to do it for free.
We went to Erika’s home with her husband, Earl. We pulled up and everyone was in the front yard. The first half-hour it was this wonderful scene where the kids were doing Christmas carols, and there were magic tricks and jokes. There must have been 50 kids jam packed in their living room, looking at Santa Claus and having a fun time. Colten (their son) is next to me, and he’s obviously very sick. But there was one thing from that night that jarred me. I was just standing in the corner, everybody facing my way, looking into the kitchen. I saw Erika with hospice nurses, and they were setting up Colten’s morphine. They were going to give him his first shot the moment that I left.
The only way I can describe it is that I’ve never felt quite so happy and so sad at the same time. Here’s this room filled with all of this joy, and then in the other room, there’s this poor little 3-year-old kid, facing his own mortality.
After Santa was done, everybody moved outside. I went and found Earl, because I was just compelled and moved by what I had seen. I went up to Earl and said, “You just have to take your son for a ride, you’ve got to do it.” At first, he didn’t want to. I told him not to worry about the car, just take his son for a ride.
He strapped Colten in the car, and they went off for about 5 minutes. Colten had Down Syndrome and was only mildly verbal. He used mostly sign language to communicate. When Colten got back he was very animated and was talking to his dad using signs. I asked Earl what he was saying. Earl, who at that point was also very emotional, told me that he was asking for more, and he wanted to go again. I told them to go.
So, they left, and I just stood in the middle of the street by myself watching the Batmobile ride away. And that was another thing that hit me that night – that this car and my quirky sense of humor really could do something to help. I didn’t know what direction it was going to go, but I felt like this is something I should really pursue. And that’s when we started doing more, and I started trying to make more calls, trying to find families. I didn’t talk to Erika for another two years. Erika, why don’t you tell him about what happened two years later.
Erika- We lost Colten two weeks after Charles was there that night. Obviously, I was not in a good place. Thinking of other people and what I could do for them was the last thing on my mind
But almost two years later, I saw a picture on one of my friends Facebook and their little guy had gone for a ride in the Batmobile. I had just gone through all of my pictures, and I noticed I was very sad. I have five other children so when Earl and I went to Tucson for Colten’s transplant we had to physically move there. We had five other kids who were living with grandparents and friends and anyone who was willing to take them for a night or two, so there was just a lot of sadness in my house for that whole year but especially that month when we got back.
I was going through all the pictures, and I realized that the only night where everyone was smiling and happy was the night that Charles was there with Santa and the Batmobile. So, I knew then that I needed to tell him about the night of happiness and happy memories he brought to all of us when we really didn’t have any of those. I searched for his e-mail and sent him a thank you note. When I heard back from him, I responded and made it appoint to speak with him and Bridget from Hope Kids.
Charles- I didn’t want to overwhelm her or anything, so I actually contacted the charity that I knew we had in common and asked them to speak to Erika and Earl about coming down here.
Erika- We met Charles at the cave and he told us what he was doing and asked if we would allow him to name it after our son. We were completely blown away and overwhelmed. I just knew at that moment whether he wanted me to or not, I was going to be a part of this. I wanted to give to families what Charles gave to me that night, because as a mother, whether it’s the kiddo who is sick and being nominated or just the other families who need a break from the stress that they have been going through, I just knew I had to be a part of it. So I’ve been here ever since.
Ron- Tell me about being nominated and about how things function now.
Charles- We became a 501-C3 about a little over a year and half ago. The way that it works is we have maybe 15 principal charities. And these are charities that we go to on a regular basis. The charities will go out and select one of their families.
Some f our charities have dozens on families on backlog, hoping to get in. The charities ask the families if they would like a night at Wayne Industries. They are encouraged not to tell the children that they are going to the Batcave, although I’m certain many of them do, as we have kids show up in costumes, which is always fine.
On the day of the show, we send out Mr. Wayne’s limousine, along with two marked police cars, which we have Phoenix or Chandler Police present. A small motorcade goes to a nearby police substation and picks up the family, and when they arrive all their family and friends are here to cheer and greet them as they come in.
Then, we have an emcee, either me or Erika, and we walk them through two hours in the world of Mr. Wayne. They learn about the history of Wayne Industries. They also learn why this room is here. By the way, you may not know this, but in every Wayne Industries facility, worldwide there is a room that looks exactly like Mr. Wayne’s study back at Stanley Wayne Manor, that way if he comes to any one facility he can relax and get right to the important business of the day.
Ron- So he’s right at home.
Charles- That’s the explanation we give. And that’s how the nomination process works. A lot of charities that we get are secondary charities, the ones that are nominated by the families and over time we’ve grown close to them, and that’s how some of them have become primary charities. That’s the whole idea of making this thing bigger and better, so that there’s clearly an unlimited need for it. There’s no way we could ever do enough shows, but we want to do everything that we can in order to help as many families as can.
Ron- How many shows do you book per month?
Charles- Right now we do about two per week, which is the infrastructure that our current volunteer core can handle. When we move into the new facility, we believe that we will be able to bump it up to a much bigger level.
Ron- Earlier you mentioned how many kids or nominations you have done.
Erika- We’ve had about 210 families come through.
Charles- 210 families, 127 charities and almost about ¾ of a million dollars been granted to charities so far. Through this endeavor, I want to teach my kids the same lesson that my grandparents and parents taught me, to give back. All of this improves my life and gives it meaning and great purpose. It makes me a better person and my life richer.
Ron- Thank you!