A Utah dad who went viral earlier this year after creating a $1,500 costume so that his 3-year-old daughter, Nellee, could soar like Wonder Woman has now turned six disabled kids into members of the Justice League to honor them for their positivity, determination and bravery.
“They’re true superheroes, so I decided to do a series of photos turning their weaknesses into strengths,” Josh Rossi, 32, a commercial photographer who shuttles between Utah and Puerto Rico, tells PEOPLE.
“Ever since I turned my daughter into Wonder Woman, I’ve heard from parents of sick kids, wondering if I could do something similar for their sons and daughters,” he says. “I’m thrilled to finally do it and show the world how inspiring and strong they are. I honestly feel that this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
With help from his wife, Roxanna, 29 (in addition to Nellee, now 4, the couple has a 10-month old son, Josh), Rossi found six children, mostly from Utah, to pose as Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Superman, Cyborg and Flash. Julie Whitley, a costume designer from Provo, Utah, spent three weeks designing costumes for the kids, then Rossi did a one-day photo shoot at McGrew Studios last month, before posting the results on his website this week.
“What I especially love about it is that we picked specific kids for each role,” he says. “For example, if Superman gets near kryptonite, his heart gets weaker. Tegan Pettit, the boy we picked to play Superman, is waiting for a heart transplant and has half a heart. He was the perfect choice to play Superman.”
Born with a condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, Teagan, 9, of Salt Lake City, has had three open heart surgeries and will soon need several more, says his mother, Brytten Pettit.
“He’s always loved Superman,” she tells PEOPLE, “so when he was given an opportunity to put on that super suit and cape, my heart melted when I realized that the things that make him different are what makes him Superman. That ‘S’ on his chest gives him and others hope to fly above it all and be the superheroes they were intended to be.”
For Batman, Rossi chose 5-year-old Simon Fullmer of Sandy, Utah, who was diagnosed earlier this year with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, while for Wonder Woman, he selected Sofie Loftus, 3, of Salt Lake City, to wear his daughter’s authentic costume.
Sofie was diagnosed last year with embryonal rhabdomyoscaroma, a soft tissue sarcoma that can strike children in their first five years of life.
“At one point, I had Nellee talk to Sofie,” Rossi tells PEOPLE, “because she was basically passing the Wonder Woman torch on to her. As they said goodbye, Nellee crossed her arms just like Wonder Woman does, and Sofie did the same pose back. I almost broke down in tears, watching that.”
Rossi’s choice for Aquaman was 2-year-old Mataese “Macky” Manuma, of Provo, Utah, who was recently diagnosed with acute megakaryoblastic leukemia, and he knew that 5-year-old Kayden Kinckle, of Englewood, N.J., who was born with omphalocele, a birth defect in which internal organs remain outside the body, was perfect for Cyborg. After multiple surgeries, doctors had to amputate Kayden’s right foot and left leg.
“Kayden was so excited to put the pic of him as Cyborg on his wall — he can’t stop staring at it,” says his mother, Nikki Kinckle. “He loves to just see himself standing tall without his crutches. I believe that’s why it means so much.”
For the character of Flash, Rossi was touched by the story of 8-year-old Zaiden Stolrow of Ogden, Utah, who has ADHD and is no longer invited to birthday parties due to his frequent outbursts. Zaiden loves to run, says Rossi, but his behavioral problems kept him from participating in a school running event that he’d looked forward to for weeks.
“Instead of allowing him to run, the teacher sent him to the principal’s office,” Rossi tells PEOPLE, “so I decided to turn Zaiden into Flash. His mom said the light had gone out of his eyes until we did the photo shoot. That’s what makes this entire project so worthwhile: to know it’s made a real difference in these kids’ lives.”
“Shooting these pictures has changed my perspective on what I value in life,” he says. “With costumes or without, these kids are superheroes.”