What started out as a prank among friends last December has transformed into something much bigger than a 19-year-old Petaluma resident ever imagined.

"Kids have started coming up to me and telling me about the tough situations in their lives," said the teen who calls himself Petaluma Batman, preferring to keep his real identity out of the news media. "It's made me very appreciative for the life I have, and made me see how much kids today need people to be there for them."

As Petaluma Batman sat perched on a ledge at a parking garage about a month ago, keeping a watchful eye on the city on a Saturday night, a youth came up to him and sat down beside him. The young teen simply said, "I'm having a really tough time at home right now."

Petaluma Batman said that, while the experience was new for him, he sat and listened to this young person's struggles. "I didn't tell him what to do, I just listened," he said. "While I won't tell you what the kid was going through, I will say that by the end of our conversation, he said he felt much better being able to talk to someone about it."

Since this initial encounter, Petaluma Batman said that several other young people have approached him with concerns over family life, peer pressure, school issues and bullying. "It just reaffirms the mission of why I started this whole thing," he said. "I just wanted to do something to make a difference for my community. Beyond anything else, this is proving to me that anyone can do it."

Since he first donned a homemade cape and mask three months ago, Petaluma Batman has gained widespread notice. He was recently featured in an article on The Huffington Post, was the subject of a short video by Austin Smagalski, a local 20-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student and budding filmmaker, and is the subject of a segment in a full-length documentary film called "Legends of the Knight" set to air at this year's Comic-Con festival in San Diego.

Award-winning independent filmmaker Brett Culp said he traveled to Petaluma from Tampa Bay, Florida, expecting to film a light-hearted segment on the teen who runs around Petaluma in a "homemade, hokey costume," for his upcoming documentary on everyday citizens who adopt the guise of Batman.

Culp said that many of the other 'Batmans' he has visited across the country dress up in the costume to deal with serious issues like leukemia and muscular dystrophy. He thought that Petaluma Batman would lend a bit of fun to end his film on. But when he arrived in town, Culp said that he was floored by Petaluma Batman's impact on the community.

One of the people Culp interviewed was Kevin Byrne, father to Alyssa Byrne, the 19-year-old Casa Grande graduate who died tragically at the SnowGlobe Music Festival on New Year's Eve. When Petaluma Batman first began his mission to inspire the community, one of the first things he did was hang flyers notifying the community about the missing Byrne teen. He also helped get the word out about her disappearance through social media.

"Talking to Kevin Byrne, who believes that Petaluma Batman embodies the love in this community, really surprised me," said Culp. "It showed me how special Petaluma Batman truly is. His desire to help the city come together during difficult times is an incredibly good story for Petaluma, but also an incredibly inspiring story for other communities."

In addition to the work that Petaluma Batman is doing throughout the city, he's inspired other young people to join his cause. Petaluma Joker, a shy San Francisco Academy Art University film student who lives in Petaluma, said that he always wanted to make a difference in people's lives, but had no idea what to do — until he met Petaluma Batman and saw that entertaining people can provide comfort during difficult times. While he remains busy attending classes and working, he has made time to go out and regularly put on a show with Petaluma Batman for kids in the community.

"It's something that is fun for kids, makes them laugh, and let's me do something positive for the community in my own way," said the 23-year old, who is also keeping his identity a secret.

Petaluma Batman said he will continue to don his homemade costume until it is no longer fun. "I never dreamed it would go this far, or mean so much to so many people," he said. "But I'm glad I did it. It's the best thing I've ever done and I just hope that it will continue to show everyone that it's not about becoming a hero, but about releasing the hero within all of us."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)