By Nora Heston Tarte
In 2014, Ricky Mena, then 30 years old, walked into a children’s hospital to visit a friend’s child in the hospital. Before stepping into the room, Mena slipped into the men’s restroom to change into a $1,400 custom-made Spider-Man suit he purchased from a costumier. Not long into the visit, Mena was escorted from the facility by security, and claimed his name was Peter Parker to avoid getting into trouble. Since then, Mena has visited more than 15,000 sick children around the world, donning the Spider-Man suit, and he hasn’t been asked to leave. With invitations from prestigious children’s hospitals, a verified blue checkmark on Instagram, and a solid fundraising platform for his 501(c)3 nonprofit, his services are free of charge to the children’s families.
The idea to become Spider-Man came to Mena literally in a dream. Down on his luck after walking away from a blossoming career in the Los Angeles music industry, Mena was sleeping on a friend’s couch while working toward becoming a personal trainer. One night, his deceased grandmother visited him while he slept, telling him to become Spider-Man and visit infirmed children. “It just felt too much like real life,” says Mena. “It didn’t feel like a dream.”
With only $300 to his name, Mena embraced his risk-taking wild side and sold his Chrysler 300 to buy the costume. Mena’s plan didn’t take off smoothly—he experienced a lot of rejection, mostly because he lacked formal training in interacting with infirmed children. Mena persevered, as he wasn’t looking for a paycheck for the gig, he just wanted a way to give back.
That moment in the hospital before he was asked to leave helped Mena discover the importance of his vision. Jeremiah, the little boy he visited, was thrilled and his mother’s images went viral on social media. “It was just so moving to see how many people were asking in the comments, ‘Who is this person?’ and ‘How can we get Spider-Man to come over here?’” Mena recalls.
The road to becoming Spider-Man hasn’t been without bumps. For a long time, Mena lived with friends gratis on the condition that he pursued the Spider-Man gig. He worked as a bouncer and a personal trainer to make ends meet. In 2015, Heart of a Hero, a nonprofit organization, was born, and Mena and his wife, Kendall, who plays Spider-Gwen, began bringing in donations. Mena now plays Spider-Man full-time; he had to quit personal training to fulfill the large number of requests he was getting to visit children in hospitals, hospice care, and at homes.
An acutely distressing experience, however, almost derailed his operation. After a two-week period during which Mena held two children as they breathed their last breaths, he took a month off from playing Spider-Man to go to therapy and overcome the post-traumatic stress that he subsequently experienced. It was one thing to be a part of a child’s life, it was another to be a part of their death. During that time, he had to decide if this is truly what he wanted for his life. Mena realized that to him, playing Spider-Man was both giving back to sick children and a way to serve God. Mena is thriving as Spider-Man, traveling the world to bring toys to children who need a pick-me-up and, most importantly, to be their hero in a time of need. “Kids live in a world that we as adults don’t,” says Mena. “Being a hero is a pathway to reinforce their ability to fight.”