The Australian invention empowering sick children through tough times | Kanebridge News
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The Australian invention empowering sick children through tough times

This specially designed medical garment draws on the ‘Batman effect’ to give young patients the strength to persevere

By Robyn Willis
Fri, Apr 14, 2023 8:00amGrey Clock 3 min

It might not seem like much, being able to choose what you wear. But for children being treated for life threatening conditions and illnesses, it’s more agency than they’re used to.

Regularly prodded with needles, drips and assessed by monitors, as well as being scanned, x-rayed and more, they often have little control over what’s happening – or being done to – their own bodies during hospital stays. It’s often a frightening, bewildering experience.

And it’s not just the sick children who feel powerless.

When tradie Jason Sotiris’s daughter was diagnosed with a life threatening illness as a young child, he was at a loss to help give her the strength and support she needed to endure. 

Creating a hospital friendly range of clothing, known as Supertees, was the result. Designed to be MRI and PET scan friendly, the hospital grade garments provide medical staff with easy side and shoulder access to the patient while still looking like a standard t-shirt. 

Starting from scratch and with no experience in the clothing industry, Sotiris trialled a number of designs and fastening options before settling on the end product.

But key to their success is the Marvel superhero characters that are printed on them.

Sotiris said the garments are designed to help put young kids in the best frame of mind as possible as they face the toughest times of their lives.

“These children have to face these things and there’s not a lot of choice for them,” he said. “We want them to be able to choose whatever makes them feel stronger.”

Available free to families of kids facing the toughest health battles, the Supertees are in high demand. 

“What you wear matters, what you wear can represent you in a certain way and hospital gowns are a symbol of being unwell,” Sotiris said. “It’s something given to those who are unwell. 

“We wanted to create something that someone would wear and make them stand out in a special way. How good would it be that something is so cool and fun that it makes healthy kids just a little bit jealous, because it’s usually the other way round.”

The Supertee is aimed at children from birth through to early teens. It looks like a standard t-shirt but is MRI and PET scan friendly, with side and shoulder fasteners for easy access.

But the benefits of the Supertee go way beyond having a desirable superhero costume.

Sotiris pointed to a joint study by researchers at University of Pennsylvania, University of Minnesota, University of Michigan in the US called The Batman Effect: Improving Perseverance in Young Children.

The study found that when four and six year olds ‘impersonated’ an ‘exemplar other’ like a superhero character, they showed  much higher levels of perseverance when faced with challenging tasks. The findings of the study supported what Sotiris already suspected.

“So it’s not the child going through the MRI, it’s Wonder Woman,” he said. “How would she act in this situation? We’re trying to use the power of imaginative play.”

While Disney, who has the rights to the Marvel characters’ artwork, has waived licensing fees for the Supertees, the charity is not receiving further monetary support. 

Sotiris is seeking high wealth individuals and corporate partners to help him achieve his aim of supplying Supertees to 10,000 seriously ill children around Australia. 

“I don’t want parents to have to pay for them – they are going through enough,” he said. “Parents are often working less and navigating that with their employer, or they may have left their job to care for their sick child. It would be great to offer them something to make things a little bit easier.”

He is in talks with other community-minded groups such as the NRL and the NSW Police (to create a Tactical Cancer Fighting Unit Supertee) to extend the range and give more kids the mental boost they need.

Just as it is for any parent who has watched their child go through this experience, it’s still a very personal quest for Sotiris. His daughter, now 11 years old, finished treatment some time ago and her last scan earlier this year was clear. Giving back to other parents and children has helped him process his own difficult memories of that time.

“In 2018 I held my daughter’s hand in one hand and a Supertee in the other and I went back to the hospital,” he said. “I started replacing the memories I had of her treatment with these wonderful memories of helping these kids with the Supertee.”

You can support the Supertee initiative here.



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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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