No. 5: Wonder Capes

The catalyst: Are superheroes for real? Amy Pankratz just might qualify.

Like many superheroes, the stay-at-home mother from Sioux Falls, South Dakota,  discovered her powers by accident. One cold winter day, her then four-year-old daughter Isabella said, “Mommy, I want a superhero cape.”  Pankratz says, “I told her OK.” But then she couldn’t find capes for little girls at the store, so she sewed her own.

Months later, when Isabella fell ill with a double virus and had to be hospitalized, the power of the cape multiplied and transformed into Wonder Capes.

The act: During a brief hospital stay, her daughter begged Pankratz to pack her pink princess cape. “On the third day, Isabella asked if she could flit into the hallway with her cape. And to us, that means skip.” Pankratz says. Kids with IV poles watched in awe. “That’s when Isabella put the cape on another hospitalized child.” Every other pediatric patient on that hospital floor wanted to soar through the halls. Pankratz started creating, sewing, and donating customized superhero capes: more than 4,000 and counting.

The mother of three powers through her days juggling schedules, taking her “love bugs” to preschool and kindergarten, and checking off routine to-dos from her lengthy list. By night she sews capes. After the kids are tucked in, you can hear her secret weapon –- her Brother sewing machine — whirring away.

Bolts of cheery, bright fabric (animal, floral, and polka-dot patterns) line one wall of her sewing room. It takes Pankratz three or four hours to customize a cape, and she considers each child and gives their capes a special blessing. “I read their stories, think about them, their hobbies, favorite colors; I pray over them,” she says. “If, even for a moment, the cape brings some relief, comfort, and hope to them, it’s worth it,” she says.

It has for many. One parent who lost her 4-year-old daughter to cancer took the time to send a heartfelt email to Pankratz: “Her cape was the one constant in her life. It was her security, and honestly, our security too. We are so grateful for someone like you; we felt your prayers in her cape.”

Five-year-old Brooke Mulford is fighting stage-four, high-risk neuroblastoma, childhood cancer of the nervous system. Countless procedures — chemotherapy, harvesting stem cells, radiation, clinical trials — have become routine. In a pink cape and special floral-designed hearing aids, Brooke says, “It makes me brave.” Her mother, Amy Mulford, says she’s witnessed the power of the cape. “It gives her strength. Always at the hospital, she would pull her blanket up, and she would have the cape running on top of it, so she was pretending being protected by her cape.”

The ripple: Supermom Pankratz has sparked others’ hidden powers to think about what they could do to give.

The Wonder Capes project inspired Angie Kappenman, a mother from Madison, South Dakota. “The cape made [my son] Nicholas feel strong. He would fly through the hospital halls to receive his treatments. He would be tired from the treatments, but when he puts it on, he gets his energy and truly believes he is a superhero,” says Kappenman. The cape inspired the Kappenhams’ backpack donation program, Stay Strong, Carry On, at the local hospital. The backpacks include coloring books, toys, and activities and can be used as organizational tool for the formidable amount of hospital paperwork.

A mother-daughter duo, Art-Moms, is teaming up with Pankratz to make superhero keychains for their Together We Can All Make a Difference campaign. One hundred percent of proceeds will go to childhood cancer research.

Church and community members were also inspired to ride the ripple. Extra fabric scraps are donated to a local church group and are used to make quilts for the homeless.

In Norway, Olea’s Cupcakes joined forces with Pankratz to whip up a Cupcakes for a Cure benefit. Proceeds will go to a local hospital. Other partnerships are in the works: The Make-A-Wish Foundation, Children’s Miracle Network, and St. Baldrick’s Hospital are teaming up with the supermom to give her special capes to sick, injured, or disabled children and their siblings around the world.

Donate a cape.

–Toan Lam