WNC Superheroes helps community members in need

BROKEN WINGS: Retired commercial airline pilot Tyler Brisbon came up with the idea for WNC Superheroes while recovering from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. The nonprofit raises funds to cover unanticipated expenses incurred by community members in distress. Photo courtesy of WNC Superheroes

Like many superheroes, Tyler Brisbon can fly. But for this retired commercial airline pilot, being airborne plays no role in his current effort to support community members in crisis. In January, Brisbon launched WNC Superheroes, which works in partnership with fellow nonprofits Our VOICE, Helpmate, My Sister’s Place and Head Start in Buncombe and Madison counties.

Together, these organizations identify client needs that aren’t typically covered by federal grants and other traditional funding sources. Whether it’s medical bills or emergency home repairs, WNC Superheroes runs crowdfunding campaigns to help cover unexpected expenses associated with individual trauma, which can be anything from sexual violence to domestic abuse to sex trafficking.

“Our work aims to help prevent that one urgent need from snowballing into something that puts a person at risk of losing their job or losing their home or not being able to feed their family,” says Monica Antonazzo, who serves on WNC Superheroes’ board alongside Brisbon.

In its first four months, the organization raised $5,431.17 in support of 11 cases referred by partner nonprofits. More recently, the group received an anonymous $15,000 donation to address future client needs.

“It’s all about helping people,” says Brisbon. “Everybody walking around wants to help other people. It’s just a matter of giving them a platform to do it.”

Overwhelmed by circumstances

Brisbon’s introduction to social work came in 2001, when he began volunteering with the local guardian ad litem program, in which volunteers serve as courtroom advocates for abused and neglected children. “Initially my interest in law led me to that work,” he recounts. “But my experience working in that role quickly transformed my worldview.”

At first, admits Brisbon, he expected each case to be a simple matter of bad parenting. Instead, he reveals, “I saw parents who were overwhelmed by circumstances, most of whom were trying to do the best they could.”

This revelation triggered a fundamental shift in Brisbon’s understanding of opportunity and individual situations. “When I was a child, the expectation was that I would be successful,” he says. “And I was. … Looking back on it, I thought that was everybody’s experience.”

But as he continued his work as a guardian ad litem, says Brisbon, “The fog started lifting.”

“I realized that where people end up is mostly a product of where they start out,” he says. “And sometimes people don’t have the resources to help them figure things out. So you get a population of people who don’t have the advantages I had, and then you put them in circumstances that are extraordinarily difficult — and then something happens.”

A hero is born

For Brisbon, that something was a 2009 motorcycle accident; the injuries he sustained prevented him from flying for nearly four years. While in recovery, the grounded pilot resumed volunteering as a guardian ad litem, which he’d stepped away from five years before.

“That was the initial genesis for WNC Superheroes,” he explains.

Those early efforts to launch the program failed, but the concept stayed with Brisbon long after he’d returned to flying. He retired in 2017, and having both time and money on his side, the former pilot began to work in earnest to see the idea take off.

Today, Brisbon, Antonazzo and fellow board members Jeff Camp, Cara Carlson and Jim Lowe operate the nonprofit on a volunteer basis. This helps keep costs to a minimum while maximizing the impact of community donations. All funds, notes Brisbon, go directly to referred cases, except for the $89 monthly website fee and costs associated with Facebook advertisements.

Future growth might eventually require paid staff, but “I won’t be taking any compensation from WNC Superheroes,” stresses Brisbon.

Last resort

These days, anyone with access to a social media account can create a fundraiser, but the anonymity WNC Superheroes provides is a key feature of its platform. The reason is simple, says Daniel Lee, client services coordinator for Our VOICE: Many survivors of domestic abuse and/or sexual violence don’t want to share their experiences online.

Before he became aware of WNC Superheroes, says Lee, “I remember having a discussion with a client about starting a GoFundMe campaign. The client was hesitant, however, due to the continuing stigma associated with sexual violence: She wanted to remain anonymous.”

Carolina Robles, a counselor at Helpmate, sounds a similar note. “One of the advantages of [WNC Superheroes] is that it provides clients with confidentiality,” she says. “It protects their privacy.”

HELP IS AVAILABLE: “One of the reasons many stay in abusive relationships is that they don’t have the financial means to leave,” says Carolina Robles of Helpmate. “Many times I hear from clients who say had they known these resources existed, they would have left their situation a long time ago.” Photo by Thomas Calder

Still, both Robles and Lee emphasize that they typically turn to the group only as a last resort. “Before I ask the community for help, I’m going to try to find funding that is earmarked specifically for the needs of my client,” says Lee.

Both also note that if they get recurring requests concerning the same person, they’ll refer the client to a financial organization such as OnTrack WNC, which helps clients learn ways to better manage their finances.

Concern about donor fatigue is yet another reason partner nonprofits try to find funding elsewhere before contacting Brisbon’s group. “Typically, for the Superheroes, it takes about four to five days to raise $500,” says Robles. “But we’ve seen when there are multiple cases open, it takes longer. So there is that concern that people will get overwhelmed.”

Antonazzo, however, says that she and her fellow board members are working to prevent that from happening. Currently, she notes, “Our goal is to broaden our support base” through greater engagement with Black Mountain and Hendersonville residents. “Our hope is that people will want to connect with those they consider to be their neighbors.”

Be a hero

On its website, WNC Superheroes displays a list of completed cases. The dollar amounts and circumstances vary, but what all these stories have in common, says Brisbon, is the community effort behind them.

In one instance, the nonprofit raised $395 to cover the copay for a woman whose nose was broken in a violent exchange with her partner. In another, $120 was donated to pay medical bills associated with a sexual assault. And in yet another fundraiser, sympathetic residents provided $484 for the deposit on an apartment, enabling a victim of physical and emotional abuse to get off the street and into a home.

Underlying these stories is the organization’s guiding principle: “Every person who gives $1 or $100 is a true WNC Superhero,” the website proclaims.

Brisbon underscores this final point: “What I want to be able to do is give the community the opportunity to directly impact the life of someone in crisis. I want to get these cases out to the public … and, if it’s successful, I want it to spread. I want to have people in other communities setting up organizations like this to show that this model works: that people can volunteer a few hours of their time every month and really leverage social media in order to help a lot of people out.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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