When Holly Hagen ’89 welcomed her nephew Max for a visit in 2010, he showed up wearing a red cape and cardboard mask that, like any reasonable 3-year-old, he refused to take off. As she watched the mini superhero soar around the yard to save the day, an empowering idea also took flight.

Hagen started Creative Capes, selling personalized handmade capes, masks and shields for children to unleash their own inner heroes. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic causing stress and uncertainty for many families, Hagen is expanding her mission through the Heroes Unite campaign, a partnership with Baltimore’s North Bend Elementary to raise funds to make 110 capes for the kindergarten and first-grade classes at the school, which has a significant number of students from low-income homes.

“It’s about self-esteem and self-confidence,” she said. “The more we have of that, the better our world is going to be.”

Young boy wearing red and blue superhero capeHagen herself benefited from growing up in a creative environment. The Annapolis native, whose mother is an artist and father an entrepreneur, went from handing out homemade valentines and wearing handcrafted Halloween costumes as a kid to studying visual communications at UMD, leading to 20-plus years working at Maryland-based graphic design firm Dever Designs.

But after Max’s visit, when she saw firsthand how something as simple as a cape could boost a child’s self-esteem, her career took a turn. She started making her own line of satin superhero swag, sewing kids’ first initials onto the personalized capes and selling them at craft shows. Word spread as children continued stopping by her stand and marveling at themselves in the mirror, leading to more shows, a company website and, eventually, a new full-time job for Hagen providing props to bolster children’s imagination.

“A cape is an old-school play toy, open-ended,” she said. “The person wearing it is the director of the play scene.”

Although Hagen receives some help cutting and pinning fabric from her “trusty sidekick” husband, Thom, who works as a recycling driver in Baltimore, Creative Capes is mostly a one-woman production, with Hagen sewing each cape herself. As the business grew, she made a habit of donating 30 to 40 capes each year to children or schools in need. But this year, amid COVID-19, she was inspired to go bigger.

While posting about cape donations in a local Facebook group, Columbia Community Care, Hagen virtually met Jody Grandier, a first-grade teacher at North Bend. After requesting a cape as a pick-me-up for a student whose family was struggling due to the pandemic, Grandier suggested she and Hagen work together to empower her whole class with Creative Capes’ personalized hero capes.

“I always try to teach my students about random acts of kindness and that they’re worth it,” Grandier said. “Even if just for that moment, if you can provide happiness, why would you not want to?”

Hagen loved the idea and extended it further, striving to craft capes for all of North Bend’s kindergarteners and first-graders. The pair officially launched the Heroes Unite campaign in mid-September, with a goal of raising $3,850 to fund 110 capes in time for the students to suit up for Halloween. For each cape donated, Creative Capes will also contribute a $10 coordinating eye-mask and an activity book to encourage creative play at home.

So far, the effort has brought in $2,630 in donations. Any funds raised after the goal is met would roll into the next campaign, with Hagen planning to partner with two more schools and award an additional 228 students with capes ahead of the holiday season.