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Salt Lake City, Cosplay and Charity

on Tue, 02/17/2015 - 00:00

Rebel Legion at Salt Lake FanX 2015
Comic book and Pop Culture conventions are filled with an assortment of sights, sounds and activities to keep one busy for hours on end. Artists’ Alleys contain numerous illustrators and graphic artists, for instance, ready to create specially-commissioned sketches. A multitude of celebrity guests are available for autographs and photo opportunities, while vendors have a full-array of merchandise available for purchase. Fans dressed as Jedi Knights, hobbits and zombies, Ghostbusters and time-travelling Doctors are also an integral part of the experience. A series of panel discussions throughout the day round out the activities, as both celebrities and fans alike meet to converse on a multitude of Geek and Pop Culture issues and genres.

There’s even more to a modern day Pop Culture extravaganza, however, as many fan-based organizations have begun using the convention scene as a way to raise both awareness and donations for an assortment of non-profit charities. The Salt Lake FanXperience in January 2015 was a prime example as the vendor room contained an assortment of local fanclubs to go along with the merchandise on sale, including the Rebel Legion of Star Wars, the Ghostbusters of Salt Lake City, the Utah Browncoats, H.E.R.O.I.C. Inc., the Legacy Initiative and the Kids Heroes Foundation.

In addition to cosplaying for fun, members of these organizations don their capes, masks, proton packs and lightsabers for charity events across the state of Utah, combining their love for their respective fandoms with the opportunity to do some good and give back to their communities in the process.

On the Saturday of Salt Lake FanX 2015, members of a small handful of those organizations got together for a panel discussion entitled “Cosplayers and Charity.” For close to one hour, Eric Allen Hall of H.E.R.O.I.C.S. Inc., Jakob Tice of the Rebel Legion, Damon Ricks of the 501st Legion, Travis Hysell of the Legacy Initiative, Neff of the Mandalorian Mercs and independent cosplayer Ash Sweetring talked about their personal experiences in charity cosplay, what it means to be a member of a fan group and the ways that anyone who enjoys cosplay can get involved in their local communities and make a difference.

Eric Hall, for instance, had already been a regular cosplayer for number of years before his first charity event.

“One day my wife’s friend said that she had another friend whose little boy had pediatric cancer and they were doing a Spider-Man-themed 5K race as a fundraiser for him,” he explained. “She asked if I would come out and do it, so I said yes. I came out as Spider-Man, I ran the race. I got to meet the parents. And just seeing pictures of this three-year-old boy in the hospital with tubes connected to him, getting to understand the pain that he was going through, for his family who watched that as well—it really touched me. I have been cosplaying for a long time, and it’s fun to go to conventions like this. It is a blast to be in costume contests. But it was so much more rewarding to be able to do something good with my fun hobby that helped this little boy, lifted his spirits, comforted his family. That was in 2007, and since that time, it’s really inspired me to do something with my costume hobby.”

As Neff from the Mandalorian Mercs—a collection of Star Wars fans who dress as members of the nomadic clan from the films—pointed out during the panel discussion, charity and cosplay does not have to be limited to caped crusaders or Jedi Knights.

“There’s some of us that are a very specific genre or movie, but there are some other clubs that are more open as far as what their club is trying to accomplish,” he said. “H.E.R.O.I.C. has superheroes and some video game characters, Disney princesses, villains—they cover quite a variety. I would say most people in their club don’t have one costume. They have a superhero and a Disney character so they can come to more events where the request is from a kid who has cancer. We get events for kids who are obsessed with Star Wars, so we can only cater to those events. Pretty much across this table, maybe not everything’s covered, but a pretty wide range. So there’s kind of a home for everybody.”

The Mandalorian Mercs are only one of three Star Wars costuming organization in the Salt Lake City region, which likewise contains contingents from the Rebel Legion and 501st Legion. “Rebel Legion is the ‘good guys’ characters of Star Wars, 501st Legion the ‘bad guy’ characters,” Jake Tice of the Rebel Legion explained.

H.E.R.O.I.C. Inc., meanwhile, is a non-profit organization in Salt Lake City whose members attend charity events sponsored by the Angel’s Hands Foundation, Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army. Like H.E.R.O.I.C., the Legacy Initiative is also a Utah-based non-profit founded in 2012. Although initially consisting of only eight members, the organization has grown to over 400 volunteers who assist in the collection of food and clothing for the homeless, work to reduce crime in the community and partner with various educational institutes.

The members of these organizations take cosplaying seriously. They spend considerable time and effort creating their elaborate costumes, and even more years perfecting them. That attention to detail adds to the cosplay experience not only for each of them, but for those in attendance at the charity events in which they participate as well. Most of the organizations likewise have a set of “standards” that dictate the quality of the costumes that its members wear. Furthermore, the costumes themselves are often uncomfortable, limit one’s vision, and cause the cosplayer to sweat profusely underneath the heavy garments.

“Don’t let the fact that you don’t have a working costume stop you from participating with the clubs,” Damon Ricks of the 501st Legion told the audience at the “Cosplayers and Charity” panel. “If there’s a group you want to be a part of, start out by going with them as a spotter. Because you know what? I can’t see out of this thing, I’m pretty much down to tunnel vision, and it’s really nice to have somebody tell me when I’m about to run into somebody or if there’s a young one behind me who wants a picture that I didn’t see, and they can tap and say, ‘You got a photo op here.’ That also gives you a chance to see what you’re in for as you get your costume and put it on, so you can say, ‘OK, I’m going to look like that when I take my helmet off in three hours and I’m OK with that.’”

Although members of these organizations enjoy cosplaying for its own sake, in then end it is the experience of participating at charity events that is the true reward.

“I remember as a little boy how much Star Wars meant to me, how much it still does,” Damon Ricks later reflected. “And so being able to share that with these kids and raising money to help cure these kids, that just makes it that much more special. When you see their eyes light up, and not only their eyes but you see their parents’ eyes light up when they see how much joy that brings to their kids. That’s a huge part of why we build this stuff. Why we sweat heavily, especially in the summer. Why we have sore feet and blisters and everything we go through. It’s for these little guys, it’s for everything we do to help them.”

The tagline on the Legacy Initiative website states that “not all heroes wear a cape,” and it is indeed true—some of them carry lightsabers, wear proton packs and dress as the Tusken Raiders of Tatooine. In Utah, as well as other states around the country, they are still heroes nonetheless.

Anthony Letizia

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