In real life, though, the first grader performs feats too ambitious for even a Power Ranger. On May 23, Michael, who suffers facial deformities caused by a birth defect known as Treacher Collins syndrome, presented a check for $27,077 to Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating—his contribution to a relief fund for survivors and families of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Michael raised the money at a May 13 bowl-a-thon he conceived, helped organize and entered. "This is one of the largest donations we have received from any single individual, let alone a child," said Matt McClin-tock, a spokesman for the governor. "To see one child, and one with a handicap, raising this much is really touching."
Like many Americans, Michael was moved by the plight of the children at the America's Kids daycare center in the doomed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. A Colorado State Junior Olympics bowler who also participates in Denver's annual Children's Miracle Network Bowl-a-Thon, a fund-raiser for a local hospital, Michael decided to stage a bowl-a-thon of his own to aid the bombing's tiniest victims. "I know what it feels like," he says, "because I've been in the hospital too."
With the permission of his mother, Gayle, 35, Michael helped arrange for the use of the Heather Ridge Lanes and canvassed his neighborhood to sign up 40 other kids and adults to participate. In the end more than 300 sponsors contributed money for every frame bowled. "I asked Michael how much he wanted to raise, and he said $20,000," says Gayle, who talked him down to $10,000. Worried that even that amount would be unattainable, she listed the goal on a promotional poster as $5,000. "He said, 'Mother! You forget I'm in first grade. I know how to read.' He was very upset, so I changed it."
Thanks to local TV coverage that spurred donations from dozens of businesses, Michael far exceeded his goal. So impressive was Michael's feat, he was introduced to both houses of the Colorado legislature and met the governor. "I give a lot of awards to a lot of people," Colorado Gov. Roy Romer told Michael, "but you have to be one of the most caring people I know."
Michael's compassion is not fully explained by his own knowledge of pain, though that is extensive. "When he was born, he was in intensive care for five days" due to bone malformations that affected his ears, eyes, chin and soft palate, says Gayle, a homemaker who also suffers from Treacher Collins and whose own facial deformities have required 30 operations to correct. "They wouldn't let me take him home until I talked to a support group." A month later, Gayle and Michael's father, Bill, 41, a disabled maintenance worker, moved from New Orleans to Denver, where they entered Michael in beautiful-baby contests to nurture his self-esteem. "He just stole everybody's heart," says Michael's grandmother Alva Munds, 58. As he grew older, Gayle says, "we could point to the trophies he won and say, 'It can't be so bad if you got those.' "
Michael, who attended a preschool for special-needs children before enrolling in a public elementary school, has had four major surgeries in the last five years to rebuild his facial bones. Last year doctors at Denver's Children's Hospital grafted bone from his ribs to build up his eye sockets; on June 15 he is scheduled for further surgery on his eyes and chin. "The last surgery was pretty painful," says Gayle, who estimates that Michael will have to undergo at least 13 more operations. "The next one," she adds sadly, "will be even worse."
"He's a brave kid," says Dr. Karen Leamer, pediatrician at Denver's Children's Medical Center, where Michael is a patient. "For all his physical deformities, he remains cheerful. And he's gutsy. Michael hits us up yearly for his [Miracle Network] bowl-a-thon. He's really a motivated little kid."
And a busy one. When not involved with his charity work, Michael collects pennies, which he donates by the bagful to a missionary fund at his family's First Church of the Nazarene. He also bowls, plays soccer, sings with his church choir and plays keyboards, harmonica and is starting guitar. "When I grow up," Michael says, "I want to be a star." With that he dashes outside to shoot baskets, unaware, as only a real-life action hero could be, that he is already something more.
VICKIE BANE in Denver and Oklahoma City
- Vickie Bane.
PULLING ON HIS PRIZED POWER Rangers sneakers, Michael Crisler, 7, bounds into the living room of his Denver home and executes a ninja spin that would do any action hero proud. "Whisssk!" he hisses, vanquishing an unseen bad guy with a wicked karate punch. "Wham!"