Star Wars turns 40 years old today, but one group of fans celebrates Star Wars every day.
The 501st Legion is a worldwide organization made up of Star Wars cosplayers. They call themselves Vader’s Finest, and dress up as dark side characters such as Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, and Stormtroopers. And while they may embrace the dark side, they call themselves “bad guys doing good” — and much of their focus is on charity work, including work with Make-A-Wish Foundation and visiting hospitals.
The legion has thousands of members worldwide, and each member’s costume must be approved by the organization as screen accurate. Most members work with kits to build their own customized costumes.
Why focus on the bad guys? Rob Stelmar, Squad Leader for a 501st Legion group in Orange County, Calif., says that because a lot of the bad guys have helmets, it’s easy to disappear into the character and look exactly like you belong in the movie.
“Let’s face it,” adds assistant squad leader Jason Cecil. “I may be biased, but the bad side — the Empire — we have the cool costumes.”
Stelmar, Cecil and several of their squad members recently visited the Children’s Hospital of Orange County’s oncology ward. Their group included a Darth Vader, a Kylo Ren, a Stormtrooper, a Biker Scout and an Imperial Officer — and despite their dark side allegiances, all of them were friendly. Darth Vader handed out playing cards, the Stormtrooper gave fist bumps, and all posed for pictures with patients and their families.
“With Darth Vader, this menacing character, you would think it would be intimidating or frightening for these kids — but believe it or not, they get excited over it,” says Cecil. “It’s really cool because you see the harsh reality of their life leave for a little while.”
“We love these moments, too,” says nurse practitioner Liz Torok, “because what we do is also really heavy, and it’s fun for us to have a moment to be kids again too. And seeing those kids laugh and interact like that with them, it gives us a lot of joy too.”
For some of the Legion members who have kids, it can be particularly hard to see kids who are the same age as their children in such challenging situations.
“It’s a blessing that I have a helmet, when you see the situations that these kids are going through,” says Jason Watts, who wears a Stormtrooper costume, “but you see their faces light up, and it’s not because of you; it’s not because of the person behind the mask. It’s what we’re wearing.”
“We are putting our love of Star Wars to good use,” says Stelmar.
“I can dress up as a Stormtrooper and do good?” says Cecil. “Sign me up twice.”
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