Heart Heroes empowers kids battling Congenital Heart Defects

Nine-year-old Sam Burton is a superhero. He even has the cape to prove it. Born with half a heart and several severe heart defects, he has undergone three surgeries, suffered from congestive heart failure at age five, and has an artificial pulmonary valve. His mother, Kitty Burton, remembers when he couldn’t walk across a basketball court. Today he can run the length of a football field. Sam’s journey led Kitty and other local parents to form Heart Heroes, an organization that supports families affected by Congenital Heart Defects through its superhero capes and other programs.

In 2009 Kitty and a group of other heart moms met for coffee. She said she wanted to get Sam a super hero cape before his next heart surgery. The other moms thought it was a great idea and that they should get all of their kids capes. They drew a picture on a napkin of what the capes should look like and how to incorporate hearts onto it. “We came up with the name ‘Heart Heroes,’” Kitty said. “Sam’s was green, and we still have it.” Other parents saw kids wearing the capes and wanted them for their own children.

Kitty gave the napkin to a graphic designer, who developed the Heart Hero badge, which is placed over the heart of every cape that’s sent out. She also researched cape manufacturers and inquired about buying capes in bulk. She got a great response and started raising money to purchase the capes. “An official Heart Hero cape has that badge of honor on it,” she said. Although the cape manufacturers have changed over the years, that badge is the one element that has stayed consistent.

Since then, Heart Heroes has sent out more than 10,000 capes worldwide, each personally designed for the Heart Hero being honored. On average, they receive 100 cape requests per month through their web site. Capes are ordered for kids of all ages. “Parents often order capes knowing their baby will have a heart defect and use the cape as a blanket,” Kitty said. “The capes make the kids feel like they have the strength to get through their journey. Some parents can’t get their kids to take the cape off.”

Kitty said Sam’s cape is still hanging on the wall of his bedroom. “He loves showing it to people and is proud of it as a sign of bravery for all he’s been through.” According to The Children’s Heart Foundation, nearly one of every 100 babies born has CHD, which are the leading cause of infant deaths in the U.S. “Most people don’t realize that congenital heart defects are the most common birth defects in the world,” she added.

Because there is currently no known prevention or cure for CHD, a big part of Heart Heroes is to offer hope and funding for CHD research. This fall will mark the organization’s fourth annual Superhero Heart Run, a free event for families and friends of those who battle CHD. The run now takes place in six cities, with more added every year, and participants wear their super hero capes to show their support. “It’s a great way for the community to come together, help fundraise, and keep our programs going,” Kitty said.

The entire Heart Heroes organization is operated by Kitty and her co-founder Sondra Dubas, National Program Director Margaret Keller, and Marketing Director Kristi Unick. But Kitty emphasized they wouldn’t be where they are today if it wasn’t for community support. “So many people have such big hearts,” she said. “We wouldn’t be Heart Heroes if it weren’t for the parents who are advocates for the kids. We’ve all done this together. It’s not one or two people; it’s every single person who gives to make it what it is.”

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