A caped crusader has taken to the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, to feed the homeless. Four-year-old Austin Perine is a regular kid most of the time, but on occasion he dons a cape and becomes a local superhero, handing out sandwiches to homeless men outside a city shelter.
To the shelter residents, Austin is a familiar face. He’s been visiting since March and is routinely greeted with high-fives and pats on the shoulder. With his dad TJ’s help, Austin is on a mission to deliver “food and smiles" each week.
"It's because of you that I want to be a better person," a homeless man says to Austin. "You're showing love, everywhere you go, right?"
"I am," Austin answers, as he hands out chicken sandwiches and cold drinks. His superhero costume consists of blue sneakers, shorts, a t-shirt, and a red cape. His motto "#ShowLove" is printed across his chest.
"Show love means, you care about someone no matter what they look like," Austin explains to CNN.
"He likes being called a superhero," his father says. "He's his own entity -- 'President Austin.' He doesn't like being called Superman."
The young superhero’s objectives are clear, "I would chase the bad guys out of school and feed the homeless." Austin’s compassion is genuine. His brother Taylor, 16, who battles autism, is part of the reason the four-year-old feels the need to help others.
"Austin is just a compassionate kid. He just wants to see everybody happy. He's always been a nurturer of his brother," TJ says. "He's kind of like a little dad to him."
His quest to feed the hungry was spurred by a documentary on TV. In March, "Austin and I were watching an animal show and there was a mother panda that was leaving her cubs," TJ says. "Austin began to get concerned, and I told him that the panda would be homeless."
Austin, who didn’t know what “homeless” meant asked his dad to explain. "And my dad said, it's somebody who doesn't have a home or mom and dad around," he says. "I wanted it to have a home."
In order to illustrate the meaning, TJ took Austin to a homeless shelter run by Firehouse Ministries. When he arrived, he said, “Can we feed them?" TJ says. "I didn't expect to feed homeless people that day. But when a 4-year-old asks you, what can you say?"
The duo went to Burger King and bought chicken sandwiches. Austin then chose to use his allowance to buy food rather than a weekly toy. His story caught the attention of the local media, and Burger King decided to donate a $1,000 a month to help the hero feed the homeless. Birmingham's mayor, Randall Woodfin, says Austin is "the city's ambassador," telling CNN that his story "is one of hope."
"It's one of our younger generation that gets it and understands the importance of helping others. And it's one that we all want to cherish and make of importance which is showing love," Woodfin says.
"It really brightens our day and warms our heart to see that little superhero cape come up the building and that sweet, sweet voice," says Firehouse Ministries director Anne Rygiel.The shelter serves roughly 5,000 men, women, and children each year, most of whom are "food insecure."
"There's a lot that we do with very few resources, so we rely heavily on the community," Ryegiel says.
TJ hopes his son’s actions inspire others to help as well. "We've gotten a lot of support from the country, and what we want to do is expand from more than just giving out sandwiches."
In the future, he would like to found an organization that addresses the many roots of homelessness. "Mental illness, drug abuse, addiction, and things like that," he says. "Austin and I want to build a facility and get some specialists in there that can actually help these people get back into the workforce."
In the meantime, Austin, arguably the youngest superhero in Birmingham, continues to feed the hungry, spreading smiles and reminding others "don't forget to show love."