On a rainy day in Woburn, Mass., Chewbacca was getting a hero’s welcome.
His costumed head held against his side, the man playing Han Solo's buddy was ambling over to his spot to get ready for a parade when a group of boys from Woburn Youth Hockey, also ready to head out on the parade route, spotted him. “CHEWIE!” the young hockey players shouted, and the "big walking carpet" resistance hero accommodated the boys, doling out high fives.
Dozens of members of the “Star Wars” fan groups – the 501st Legion and the Rebel Legion – headed out in the rain dressed as characters ranging from Princess Leia Organa to Stormtroopers to the malevolent Darth Vader himself.
It’s not just the fun of putting on a Stormtrooper helmet that motivates many of the members to sign on with the Empire or the Rebel Alliance. Both the 501st Legion, which represents the dark side, and the Rebel Legion, which represents the good guys, have charity and giving back as central aims.
Fan charities aren’t just limited to long, long ago in a galaxy far away: The Harry Potter Alliance, which aims to "turn fans into heroes," started an Accio Books campaign that donated more than 250,000 books all over the globe. It also filled five cargo planes with supplies to help those in Haiti. And the International Federation of Trekkers' Federation Relief Mission Task Force collected relief supplies and hygiene products for those affected by hurricane Harvey.
All of the efforts have in common a richly realized universe with a fandom that grew up loving the movies, books, and TV shows. Now grown, people use the ideals of those fictional worlds to do good in this one – and make things just a little more special for the next generation of fans.
“I started talking with the group and realized, this is – it’s not just the costume,” says Doug Wilder, a biker scout in the 501st Legion who is from Quincy, Mass. “It’s the public service, the charity and stuff, which made it a whole lot more valuable to me....”
'I kind of decided to become the action figure'
The 501st Legion was founded in 1997, while the Rebel Legion followed in 1999. The groups have paired with organizations including the American Red Cross, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Toys for Tots. And don’t be fooled by the 501st Legion’s sinister appearance – donations made in honor of the “bad guys doing good,” came in at an estimated $889,000 in 2016 and the organization contributed more than 182,000 volunteer hours.
Both the 501st Legion and the Rebel Legion do not take payment for appearances but point organizations in the directions of charities instead.
Erich Shafer, commanding officer of the New England Garrison of the 501st Legion and commanding officer of the Alderaan Base (which serves New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine) of the Rebel Legion, remembers first seeing members of the 501st at a walk for autism. “I looked at them like – you mean I can be 30 years old and play dress up and play plastic spaceman and get away with this and do it for a good cause?” he says.
Members of both the 501st and the Rebel Legion must be at least 18 in most states and have a professional-looking costume. Mr. Wilder first saw his brother’s action figure for the Imperial Army’s biker scouts (who chase Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on speeder bikes on Endor in “Return of the Jedi”) when he was young. The design has always appealed to him.
“I kind of decided to become the action figure,” he says.
Once in, members can go anywhere in the country and find a local “garrison.” “It’s sort of like a fraternity,” says Eric Brager, a legion member officer for the 501st Legion from West Newbury, Mass. who was dressed as Darth Vader for the Woburn parade.
Wilder says he loved feeling the kinship after he recently traveled to the Star Wars Celebration event in Orlando and posed for a group photo with hundreds of other members of the 501st Legion from around the country. “It was like, these are my people,” he says. “This is my family.”
'His eyes just lit up'
Many 501st and Rebel Legion members say they have memories of children whose day was brightened that have stayed with them. Joy Lochelt, the executive officer for the Rebel Legion’s Alderaan Base, says one of her favorite experiences was making a Clone Commander Gree costume for the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a child. “That was really fun,” she says, dressed in Princess Leia's Endor outfit from "Return of the Jedi." “He was so excited.”
Wilder remembers appearing at a Providence library as part of Star Wars Reads Day. He turned a corner to find a little boy holding a “Star Wars” encyclopedia who saw him and immediately turned pages, found the Imperial army biker scout, and pointed at it. “His eyes just lit up,” Wilder recalls.
Nick Norton, a squad leader for the 501st Legion’s Green Mountain Squad in Vermont, participated in a Make-A-Wish event in Rutland, Vt., in which high school student Ryan Farrington was told he was going to Disney World by Mr. Brager, dressed as Darth Vader, and other members of the 501st Legion. “It was pretty special,” Mr. Norton says.
It’s those times, rather than appearing on stage with singer “Weird Al” Yankovic, that make participating in the 501st Legion special to him, says Wilder.
“The little moments like making the kids smile are always a lot more fun,” he says. “And you just get a lot more energy and you’re reminded of why you put up with sweating in a giant plastic spaceman outfit.”