Meet Batman's 8-year-old sidekick, whose super power is vanquishing a brain tumor

Zachary Hurst and TJ McDonnell, playing Alfred the butler and Batman,  welcome 8-year-old Ty Verbanas to the Florida Batcave.
 To inspire Ty as he faced brain surgey, a Florida nonprofit that delpoys super heroes promnised to train the boy as the Caped Crusader's sidekick.
Zachary Hurst and TJ McDonnell, playing Alfred the butler and Batman, welcome 8-year-old Ty Verbanas to the Florida Batcave. To inspire Ty as he faced brain surgey, a Florida nonprofit that delpoys super heroes promnised to train the boy as the Caped Crusader's sidekick.
Published May 28, 2017

First, he vanquished a brain tumor.

Now, Ty Verbanas is preparing to help Batman take on a collection of evil villains.

With the innocence of an 8-year-old, the Tampa boy considers one challenge as real as the other.

"I'm hearing rumbling that Gotham's worst are planning on coming down here," Batman tells Ty in his trademark gruff voice.

The two are running an obstacle course and practicing crime-fighting techniques at the Shinobi School Tampa Parkour Academy, which helps students develop ninja-like agility.

"This training is really important," Batman tells Ty. "I hope you never have to use it, but if you do, I am confident you will be ready."

The freckle-faced boy rubs the back of his head in excitement, his naturally orange hair cut in a Mohawk flanked by distinctive markings. Above his right ear is a patch of hair shaped like the Batman symbol, and above his left ear runs a scar Ty describes as a sideways question mark.

"The good guy is on the right side and the bad guy on the other," says Ty's mother Mary Verbanas. She notes that a question mark is the symbol of Batman's nemesis, the Riddler. "The good guy won."

The scar remains from brain surgery Ty underwent, when doctors gave him just a 27 percent chance of surviving.

The training last week helps fulfill a promise made to the boy in his darkest hours by a nonprofit group of superheroes who befriended him: Beat the tumor and you can join Batman as his sidekick.

"This is real. They've made it real," Mary Verbanas says.

In October, Ty began experiencing seizures blamed on a calcified cyst covering most of the left side of his brain's frontal lobe.

He needed surgery to survive. If he did, there was a high chance he'd come out of it blind in his left eye, with slurred speech and diminished motor skills.

"When I saw the images of how big the mass was I almost dropped to the floor," says Verbanas, 33. "He's my baby."

She was afraid, but she didn't want Ty to be. So as the surgery approached, she sought out some diversion to brighten his outlook.

Ty is a Batman fanatic.

• • •

The boy wears Batman pajamas, sleeps with an action figure and used to pester his mom to Google a phone number for the Caped Crusader.

Verbanas, a single mom now engaged to be married, had to quit her job and rely on charity so she could care for Ty. She turned to Facebook while looking for someone who might be willing to dress as Batman and visit him.

Within hours, she received a response from Makers United for Children's Hope, a nonprofit group also known as the MUCH Foundation.

"It turned into an experience of a lifetime," Verbanas says.

Founded in 2015 by Tampa's Zachary Hurst, the MUCH Foundation brings the world of comics to life for sick children through its nearly 400 cosplayers who wear extravagant costumes and take on the personas of their favorite fictional characters.

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"When we all harness our ability together, we can touch a child's life," says Hurst, 43.

Members typically gather in costume at events held for ill children or visit hospitals. But when Hurst learned of Ty's dire situation, the foundation decided to do more.

On Feb. 15, around 30 volunteers assembled at Largo's 4K Studios, a soundstage for productions, to build the "Florida Batcave."

"Batman has one in every state," Hurst says with a chuckle.

Paid for through a $3,000 donation from the the Fran Haasch Law Group, the cave features many of the bells and whistles of the cinematic version: cave-like walls, a 15-foot working computer display and Batman symbols throughout.

It was a labor of love for those involved.

"A designer had his anniversary vacation with his wife the next day," Hurst says. "Instead, he took $500 from the vacation money for more supplies, his wife came and helped, and they worked overnight and canceled the trip."

During construction, part two of the plan to help Ty was hatched — the offer to fight crime as Batman's sidekick.

"We just wanted to do something more to inspire Ty," Hurst says.

• • •

On the evening of Feb. 16, Verbanas told her son to put on his Batman costume for a party. Along the way, they stopped at a convenience store.

The Batmobile pulled up beside them and the Caped Crusader stepped out, inviting Ty to join him for a ride to the Batcave.

"Batman was looking for him because he'd heard Ty was brave enough to be his new partner," Hurst says.

During the ride, Batman — portrayed by 39-year-old TJ McDonnell — came to realize that the boy believed this was real.

"He had a mix of, 'I can't believe this is happening,' and, 'Where's my mom,' " McDonnell says. "She was in the car behind us, I reminded him."

At the Batcave, Ty also met Superman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern. Spider-Man drove in on his motorcycle.

Through it all, they never let on that the experience was make believe, repeating the offer to enlist him in their ranks once he recovered from surgery.

"We made him part of the brotherhood of heroes," says Hurst, who portrayed Batman's butler, Alfred.

As he went into surgery Feb. 20, Ty told the doctors to do a good job because Batman needed him.

The surgery took more than 10 hours.

Ty remained in a coma for two days.

But 48 hours after waking up, he had the strength to talk.

The first thing he said, his mom recalled: "When can I see Batman?"

• • •

McDonnell has donned his costume five times since the surgery to visit Ty, once for his eighth birthday party.

"I just keep encouraging him, like Batman would do."

Ty has some short-term memory issues, must remain on seizure medication and may face further surgery if another cyst forms.

But he recovered from surgery with none of the most-feared complications. He is healthy enough now for his training with Batman.

At the Shinobi School in Temple Terrace near the family's home, everyone adopts a fictitious back story to keep up the charade.

Hurst, out of his Alfred costume, introduced himself to Ty as the butler's brother.

The school's owner, Shinobi Poli, who has starred on the reality show American Ninja Warrior, says he works out with all superheroes when they visit Florida.

The reporter and photographer for the Tampa Bay Times? Here to chronicle Batman's sidekick.

"Cool," says a shy, grinning Ty.

Late next month, the Riddler will kidnap Ty's mom — he'll be assured she faces no danger — and force Batman and the boy on a scavenger hunt with riddles that will lead to her. Along the way, they'll encounter other comics bad guys like the Penguin, Harley Quinn and the Joker.

"We made Ty a promise," Hurst says. "It was a promise that we had no idea if we'd be allowed to fulfill. This is our honor."

When Ty is emotionally ready, the MUCH Foundation will pull back the curtain, admit it was all an illusion, and ask him to step up as a real hero: Join the foundation, dress as Batman's sidekick, and visit sick kids to help inspire them with his story.

"He'll do it," Verbanas said. "And when he gets older he will think it was the coolest thing ever how these good people worked so hard to keep his imagination alive when his world could have been full of darkness."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.