What kid wouldn’t want to feel like a superhero? Thanks to a couple of dedicated people at the Colten Cowell Foundation in Phoenix, lots of kids who could use a boost get that opportunity while visiting a Crime Fighting Cave created in the spirit of Batman’s Batcave.
Charles Keller is the man behind the magic.
A car collector who happened upon a Batmobile look-alike back in 2009, he decided to use it to cheer up youngsters with life-threatening or disabling illnesses. One of his first visits was to 3-year-old Colten Cowell, who was suffering from acute myeloid leukemia and was in hospice care. Colten also had Down syndrome and was nonverbal.
When Keller showed up at Colten’s Chandler home in December 2009 — with Santa and a trunk full of presents for Colten and his five brothers and sisters — he had no idea his life was about to change forever.
Colten’s mom, Erika Cowell, picks up the story: “Charles had my husband, Earl, take the keys and take our son for a drive around the block. Colten was very much a child with cancer when they pulled away from the curb. He was swollen and miserable. But after a couple of laps with his dad, he was laughing and smiling and signing, ‘Again! Again!’ For us, that night meant the world. It was just a happy night for everybody.”
“It was a transformation like seeing Bruce Wayne slide down the Batpole and come out as Batman,” Keller recalls. “I didn’t know what I had seen, but I knew it was something profound.”
Colten passed away two weeks later, and it would be two years before his mom reconnected with Keller. During that time Keller had reached out to other kids like Colten — children who just needed a happy experience. But he wanted to do more.
“He told me he was building a crime-fighting cave,” Erika Cowell says, “And he asked if he could name it after Colten. I said, ‘Absolutely, as long as I can be part of it.’ ”
To date, more than 330 families have visited the Crime Fighting Cave, which is located in a “highly classified” facility in the greater-Phoenix area, according to the foundation’s website.
The experience begins when the featured guest pushes a button hidden in the bust of Shakespeare’s head, right next to a red bat phone like the one in the 1960s TV show. That action opens a sliding bookshelf to two poles youngsters can use to slide down to the Batcave. Those who can’t slide can take an elevator or stairs to the magical world of bat-powered fun.
Keller says he built the cave after one youngster he’d offered to take for a ride took a pass. That 3-year-old, who’d recently undergone a kidney transplant, asked, “Why would I go for a ride in the Batmobile when it doesn’t go to a Batcave?”
Keller got busy on his computer, scanning more than 120 episodes of the Caped Crusader in action.
“Whenever there was a scene from the cave, I would stop and watch it. If Batman and Robin were working with a device, I took a screenshot of it and put it in my master notebook,” Keller explains. “We tried to [re]produce everything from the Batcave.”
All of it is hands-on for the kids — from bat-analyzer machines to computers, radios, bat phones and armor. Tours end with a ride in the Crime Fighting Car, as Keller calls it.
Now the push is on to make it all bigger and better. Keller hopes to start work next year on a stately Wayne Manor. Once inside, children will be able to visit a brand new Crime Fighting Cave and then go for a spin in the Crime Fighting Car on a track that will run around the facility.
It’s not just children with life-threatening or disabling illnesses who are welcome. “It’s children with significant life challenges,” he explains. “We’ve entertained children of military moms and dads, fallen officers and others who just need a reason to smile.”
Keller hopes to put Phoenix on the map with his new building and to invite children from all over the nation — even the world — to visit.
“We could use all sorts of help — financial contributions and volunteers, but also getting people to donate services and equipment, such as drywall, AC, lighting, electrical,” Keller admits. “You name it, we could use it.”
Keller says Bruce Wayne (a role Keller may or may not play in this story) has already made significant donations. But, Keller adds, “I’ll be darned if I’m going to let Colten or any of our other 333 families down. If this becomes my rhinoceros to carry across the finish line, well then that’s what I’ll do,” he says. “I don’t focus on what’s on the medical chart, because that’s not something I can impact. I’m not a doctor. I don’t have the ability to investigate rare diseases … but I can give children a two-hour memory that they will never forget that is joyous and happy.”