He doesn’t leap tall buildings, nor does he scale them with spider webs or respond to bat signals. What he does is far more challenging. He fights bullies, and he does it with a special superpower: kindness.
Nicholas Domingo, 25, of the Rotary Club of Twain Harte, Calif., developed his negativity-fighting alter ego, Captain Encouragement, to help young people build self-esteem and break the cycle of violent behavior. Captain Encouragement hopes to take his message to schools and libraries across the United States, with the goal of changing the world “one smile at a time.”
Domingo grew up in a town of 64 people in Missouri where he became the target of bullies at school. They picked on him for his weight, his teeth, his acne. His anger drove him to get back at the people who were picking on him. “I did, in a way, become the thing I had despised so much,” he says. “But bullying bullies still makes you a bully. Being hateful doesn’t have a positive outcome regardless of any form of justification.”
Domingo channeled his negative energy into contact sports, training to become a semipro football player. At one point he took up fighting, even competing in a cage match.
“It becomes almost an addiction – training, wanting to be bigger and stronger than everyone, chasing false ideas of what we are supposed to be,” he says.
But after suffering a brain hemorrhage while weightlifting, he had to consider a new direction. Eventually he became an actor, working in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, including as an extra as a superhero on two TV programs. Within an industry often brutally focused on image, Domingo discovered that many of the talented people around him didn’t have a strong sense of self-worth. The simple act of paying them a compliment appeared to have a powerful effect.
Those small acts of kindness were Domingo’s radioactive spider. The idea for a superhero who solves problems with positivity began to take hold.
Domingo, who now works in a day program for adults with special needs, first donned the Captain Encouragement costume in March 2015. While superheroes are universally seen as role models, “paradoxically, they’re solving all their problems with violence,” Domingo says. But Captain Encouragement teaches kids “that real superheroes don’t have to use violence at all and that bad guys come from a really bad place internally, so they’re projecting their own pain,” he says. “So what we need to do is treat them with kindness and compassion.”
During a Captain Encouragement school program, kids go through superhero training, learning important skills such as flying form and smile attacks. Then the bad guy “Rejector” bursts through the door and has a battle scene with Captain Encouragement.
“He swings at me, and I tell him to have a great day, and he looks like he’s been hit with kindness, and I say, ‘You’re beautiful!’ and he’s like, ‘No!’ ” Domingo says.
Then the kids shout friendly statements and compliments at Rejector, who is rendered powerless.
“They want that action, they want to be the superhero, but it’s a way for them to do so with something they can carry on possibly through life,” Domingo says.
Mark Dyken, director of the Jamestown, Calif., Family Resource Center and after-school programs through the Jamestown School District, has worked with Domingo to bring the Captain Encouragement program to the district’s two elementary schools, and the kids go crazy for it every time.
“You combine someone who has creativity, a really big heart, is very intelligent and articulate – and it doesn’t hurt his cause that he is movie-star good looking – and puts all of that in a package and uses it in a really good way,” Dyken says.
To understand Domingo’s influence, just ask his supervillain colleague (and friend), “Rejector,” aka Michael Miller. They met at a music festival where they were volunteering – that day, Domingo asked Miller if he would play Rejector at the festival.
Miller, who also became co-author of a Captain Encouragement comic, says kids respond to the message of being kind to one another.
“At our events, there’s always at least one kid that will stay longer than anyone else to ask all sorts of questions about how to use any superpowers, how to be kind,” Miller says. “There are still kids mailing us pictures and writing us emails about how they’re using their abilities for good. It’s really great.”
The Captain Encouragement comic was developed to keep the message going beyond the in-person event. Along with the title hero, it features activities for kids and story lines featuring heroes from the nonprofit world, including “Super Rotarian” Jack Warnack, a member of the Twain Harte club who died last year at age 101.
Domingo learned of Rotary after meeting Terry Northcutt, president of the Twain Harte club, on a Habitat for Humanity project. Northcutt brought Domingo to a club meeting, where he presented the Captain Encouragement idea.
“Everybody’s been working, grooming, critiquing, and helping him get his program going in the right direction, and his association with Rotary has just been incredible, because all the clubs love him,” Northcutt says. That outpouring of support led to Domingo joining the club.
The club helped Domingo set up 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and develop a business plan, and they’re working on getting the program “to a point where [Domingo] starts visiting all the schools and trying to reach out to as many young people as he possibly can,” Northcutt says.
“When you think about it, basically everything [Domingo is] trying to do is the epitome of The Four-Way Test,” says Northcutt, referring to a set of ethical guidelines that Rotarians use. “And for a young man to have gone through what he has and change his direction, to want to go out and do what he’s doing, is absolutely amazing. We’re doing anything we can to try and help get him there.”
• This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary.