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Garrison Carida, Star Wars and Charity

on Mon, 12/09/2013 - 00:00

Garrison Carida
Comic-Cons have evolved over the years to be more than just about comic books, incorporating an array of additional Geek Culture aspects into the equation as well. Film and television celebrities, science fiction authors and toy retailers now share space with comic book illustrators and vendors, adding to the festivities in the process.

At Steel City Con in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the guest list regularly includes representatives from Garrison Carida, the local chapter of the international Star Wars fanclub 501st Legion. Just like comic-cons are more than merely about comic books, Garrison Carida is more than a group of fans who dress up as Stormtroopers. To emphasis this fact, members of the organization held a panel discussion at the December 2013 edition of Steel City Con to elaborate on the 501st Legion and the numerous charity events the group has been involved with since its inception in 2001.

“The 501st Legion is probably one of the most well-known Star Wars fan groups out there, and there’s no doubt that we’re a fan group, that we get together and have a lot of fun celebrating the saga at conventions like Steel City Con,” member Mike Bryant explained. “But without a doubt, we couldn’t do any of the fun stuff that we do without our commitment to charity. These events are the driving force of what Garrison Carida represents. Our hospital visits are an opportunity for our members to bring the excitement of Star Wars into a place where fear and sadness are the general order of the day, and it gives an opportunity for the patients and their families—for even just a moment—to take a break from the struggles they are facing.”

The 501st Legion was initially started in 1997 by South Carolina natives Albin Johnson and Tom Crews, and the organization has grown from those humble beginnings into one of the premier Star Wars fanclub in the world, with over 6,000 members around the globe.

“The 501st Legion, because of its quality of costumes, is the Lucasfilm and George Lucas preferred Imperial costuming organization,” Tim Wimbush, the public relations manager for Garrison Carida at the time, elaborated. “We’ve actually been tasked with making appearances for Lucasfilm at different grand openings, movie releases, release of merchandise and other things that Lucasfilm is involved with.”

Because of the size and worldwide nature of the 501st Legion, the organization is broken into chapters, with Garrison Carida representing Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia. Formed in 2001, Garrison Carida has the distinction of being the first chapter of the 501st Legion to visit a children’s hospital.

“Our members made room-to-room visits and interacted with sick, injured and terminal children that were hospitalized,” Wimbush explained. “During that visit, and every hospital visit since then, our members carry along with them enough toys to give out to every single child they encounter. They do that in the hopes of possibly taking the trouble that’s on that child’s mind away for just a few minutes. When they are able to sit down with Darth Vader and color a coloring book, or play Connect Four with a Stormtrooper, that little bit of quiver of happiness in their eyes is the reason why all these members actually got involved in the first place. Sure, they love Star Wars and they love costuming, but what it usually comes down to is the charity that we do.”

Garrison Carida has 132 members and participates in approximately 125 events a year, with eighty to ninety of those revolving around either charity or community service. “As the membership of Garrison Carida grew, so did our commitment to serving our communities and volunteering for various charity groups across our tristate region,” Mike Bryant said. “We partner with several charitable organizations, including Make-A-Wish, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Children’s Miracle Network, Autism Speaks and the Buddy Walks.”

Bryant went on to discuss some of the many highlights from Garrison Carida’s charity efforts. “Back in 2007, Garrison Carida had the honor of partnering with Make-A-Wish to provide a young boy named Joshua with the night of a lifetime,” he began. “Our troopers deployed in force to grant Joshua his dream of meeting Darth Vader. At the end of the night, our troopers presented Joshua with several gifts which were provided directly from Lucasfilm, including a movie poster signed by Hayden Christensen as well as a personal letter from him to Joshua. Our members also presented Joshua with his very own Stormtrooper helmet which was handmade by one of our members and signed by all the members in attendance that evening.”

In 2010, meanwhile, Garrison Carida launched an alliance with local libraries called the Imperial Literacy Project. “Our members are deployed to various local public libraries to generate excitement about the library and about reading,” Mike Bryant explained. “We conduct a trivia contest, asking various questions about the Star Wars saga, which of course all the kids know by heart and a lot of times know it better than their parents. We also make sure that they understand what’s involved in getting a library card and basically help them to generate excitement in their local public library. The librarians we’ve worked with over the past three years have all said that our program has been one of the best ones that they’ve ever had at their libraries, and I know personally from one appearance that I was able to participate in, the librarian told us that they handed out over eighty library cards in just the two-to-three hour window while we were there.”

Another item in the Garrison Carida charity arsenal is Blast-A-Trooper. “This was an event that the 501st Legion had been doing for a few years, but 2012 was the first year that Garrison Carida did it,” Bryant said. “We set up a backdrop, which is made from an actual screenshot from one of the movies, and the members show up in costume, stand in front of this backdrop and for a one dollar donation to whatever charity we’re partnering with, you get to fire three Nerf darts right at our live characters and have the experience of actually being in a gun battle with a real Stormtrooper or even Darth Vader.”

The initial Blast-A-Trooper that Garrison Carida sponsored raised $267 for Toys for Tots in a three hour period, while adding an additional $1,200 at the Wizard World Comic Con in Philadelphia during June 2013 for the same organization. Blast-A-Trooper was also on display at the December 2013 Steel City Con, with the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (CHOP) designated as the event’s charity.

“We have volunteers here from CHOP all weekend collecting the money,” Bryant explained. “We have several strict guidelines that dictate how we conduct ourselves and one of those guidelines is we’re not allowed to accept money in any form directly. So that’s why volunteers from CHOP are here, so that the money goes directly to them and isn’t passing through us.”

Although they are often approached, Garrison Carida does not make personal appearances at private events such as birthday parties and weddings. There is, however, one notable exception to that rule. “We offer a one-hour personal appearance which Children’s Miracle Network auctions off every year in November at their Miracle Ball in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to help raise money for their organization,” Mike Bryant said. “Over the last three years, we’ve raised about $1,000 for Children’s Miracle Network with that offer of a one hour private appearance.”

Star Wars has been described as the greatest saga ever told,” Tim Wimbush stated at the start of the Garrison Carida panel discussion during Steel City Con. “If you think about it, it has everything that somebody is looking for in a movie. It’s got good-versus-evil, it’s got tyranny-versus-freedom, it’s got everything as far as action, suspense, perception and all this with a backdrop of family and father-versus-son.”

Thanks to the efforts of the Garrison Carida, and all of the other worldwide chapters of the 501st Legion, Star Wars also has a large group of fans who not only enjoy the films of George Lucas but are likewise committed to giving back to their local communities as well. Star Wars may indeed by the “greatest saga ever told,” but the charity work of both Garrison Carida and the 501st Legion is even greater.

Anthony Letizia

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