CINCINNATI -- When it comes to helping charities in Cincinnati, the Ohio Garrison of the 501st Legion is a force to be reckoned with.
The all-volunteer organization brings together Star Wars costume enthusiasts who regularly portray villainous characters from the sci-fi franchise to raise funds for Cincinnati nonprofits. Donning movie-accurate replica costumes, members of the Legion make appearances at local events to raise awareness, drive participation and contribute to fundraising efforts.
A large representation of the Legion will attend this weekend’s Cincinnati Reds Star Wars-themed festivities in honor of May 4, recognized by fans as Star Wars Day. The date is a play on one of the most quotable lines of the franchise, “May the force be with you.” Darth Vader, an army of stormtroopers and a variety of other Star Wars characters will make appearances at the games all weekend.
Steve Langenbrunner, 45, of Mason will be among the stormtroopers at the games.
“When I joined, it was so I could dress as a stormtrooper, but it quickly became because of all of the good we get to do. It is an amazing feeling to have that. The effort and expense we put into being members is totally worth it to see the faces of people, especially the kids,” he said. He joined the group in June 2014 and now helps coordinate group appearances.
Among the many charities the group has supported locally are the Alzheimer’s Association, Autism Speaks, Multiple Sclerosis Society, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Ronald McDonald House and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
A Star Wars fan since its debut in 1977, Langenbrunner said his youth is dotted with Star Wars memories – seeing each movie for the first time, playing with action figures and dressing up for Halloween. He chuckled as he told the story of tearing apart his 3-D Darth Vader poster in order to use the mask for a night of trick-or-treating. Today, his costumes are of a higher quality, and he prefers to dress as a stormtrooper or Captain Rex from Clone Wars.
While Langenbrunner has enjoyed each of the events in which he has participated, the Walk to End Alzheimer’s holds a special place. For this event, Langenbrunner walks the complete course in full armor in honor of his mother, who suffered from the disease.
“It’s long, but I see what the nurses and my dad went through and this is nothing,” he said.
For Juli Spata of West Chester, the group’s charitable giving played an important role in her decision to join. A member since September 2015, Spata was drawn to the organization’s motto, “Bad Guys Doing Good.”
“The 501st combines two things I love a lot – Star Wars and volunteering,” said Spata, who spent much of her teenage children’s elementary careers volunteering at school and local organizations such as Matthew 25: Ministries. “I like to get involved and give back to the community, and this allowed me to combine two of my passions.
Spata, who portrays a biker scout, has drawn her husband, Greg, as well as her daughter and son into the act, creating costumes for each. It allows them to spend time together, bonding over something they all enjoy. Greg, who dresses as a rebel fighter during trooping events, even built an R2-D2 replica that is often brought along for photos.
While group members don’t charge for photos, they request donations for charities. During last year's Cincinnati Comic Expo, the group raised $6,000 for Autism Speaks. As Darth Vader said: Don't underestimate the power of the Dark Side.
With a May 4 birthday, it seems that Juli Spata was destined to be a fan. Wile she was a self-proclaimed geek in high school who liked Star Wars, her love of the franchise didn’t develop until the release Episode 1. When she learned about the 501st and its members, she said she knew she needed to be a part of it.
It took Jason Mounteer, 43, of Landen a little longer – about 10 years – to commit.
He was curious when he learned of the 501st Legion about a decade ago, but he hesitated to join because of the organization’s strict costuming guidelines. He was unsure where to have a custom costume made locally and uncertain about trusting online sources.
Once he discovered a reputable company, however, he didn’t hold back. He joined in May 2016 and is now a member of the stormtrooper army, happily attending many charity events.
“I’d wanted to have stormtrooper armor forever. The 501st makes it OK to wear it on a regular basis,” said Mounteer. “Everyone has something they hang on to. For me, it was Star Wars. There is something about the story, the good vs evil.”
While 501st members exclusively dress as members of the Dark Side, their good deeds seem much more like the work of the Rebellion.
The Ohio Garrison is the local chapter of the larger 501st Legion, which has more than 10,000 active members worldwide. Kentucky fans can join the 501st Midsouth Legion. In 2016, the 501st Legion raised $889,000 and contributed 182,000 volunteer hours.