The Star Wars pop culture juggernaut is one of the most valuable entertainment franchises in human history. According to Forbes, it is valued at around US$4.28 billion but what does this extremely profitable brand do for the disadvantaged and underprivileged of the world?
In Australia, there is a legion of some 500 people who suit up as Stormtroopers, Imperial Officers, Wookies, Rebels, Resistance troops, Jedi, Sith Lords, Clone Troopers and Bounty Hunters and all fly the Star Wars flag for charity.
These dedicated fans are all members of the 501st Legion, a 12,000 person strong army made up of Star Wars force fanatics who design, curate and update personalised Star Wars cosplay outfits.
Andy Price is the Garrison Event Coordinator at the NSW and ACT dispatch of the 501st Legion, the Souther Cross Garrison. His Stormtrooper call sign is TK-42542.
For the past three years, Price has been donning his Stormtrooper suit to raise awareness and funds for the Black Dog Institute, an organisation that aims to reduce the incidence of mental illness and diminish the stigma around it.
Price is a staunch advocate for the Black Dog Institute and an avid Star Wars fan who uses his force abilities for the light side.
Pictured: Andy Price. Photographer: Deborah Chick.
How does the 501st fundraise for charity groups?
Just like the Stormtroopers of the Empire, the Southern Cross Garrison works en masse with community groups and charity organisations. The more Troopers the merrier.
“When we make appearances at events like birthday parties, product launches, and the like, we ask that a donation be made in our name. When we attend larger pop culture conventions, we directly raise money by asking for donations for photographs with our characters,” Price said.
“In addition we attend MS [multiple sclerosis] Walks, Relay For Life events, as well as any local community events such as school fetes and the like. We really don't need any excuse to dress up but love doing what we do for charity.”
Why is Star Wars such a great fit for charity work?
The Empire might not have engaged in too much charity work with their blowing up of planets and the like, but the 501st and the Souther Cross Garrison have been strong advocates for change for the past 20 years.
“When the Legion was born twenty years ago the motto ‘bad guys doing good’ was taken and became the mantra of all voluntary group of Star Wars enthusiasts who build and wear their screen accurate costumes to bring good to their community through charity work,” Price said.
Using their familiar costumes and outfits, the Star Wars fans of the Southern Cross Garrison spark joy and a new hope for people in need.
"The 501st is always looking for opportunities to brighten the lives of the less fortunate and to bring awareness to positive causes on both a local and global scale,” Price added.
“There isn't a specific link between Star Wars and volunteering but why not support those in need as plastic spacemen and spacewomen?”
Pictured: 501st Legion. Photographer: Sair Steele.
What organisations do the Southern Cross Garrison support?
The main organisation the Souther Cross Garrison supports is the Black Dog Institute, but worldwide there are a number of different charity organisations supported by the 501st Legion.
According to their website, in 2016 the worldwide collective of the 501st raised nearly US$900,000. Adding to that, it is estimated that US$4.3 million worth of volunteer hours were given by 501st members across the world.
Price says one thing he has learnt since attending more events, waving the advocacy flag for Black Dog, is that more people are impacted by depression than we think.
“Supporting the Black Dog Institute, who support mental health and depression research, has really opened my eyes to how many people are plagued by the black dog, depression. At the conventions when we mention our support of Black Dog so many of the attending have had depression or know people with depression, it really seems to affect the majority of attendees,” he said.
In addition to their fundraising attempts, the Souther Cross Garrison aims to raise awareness and noramlise open discussion about depression.
“Who doesn't love a Stormtrooper? If we can use that to start a discussion what better way to use Star Wars?” he asked.
How did you get involved in the 501st and the Southern Cross Garrison?
Being an ardent Star Wars fan, Price always knew he would one day join the dark side and support the Empire.
“I always knew of the 501st but didn't realise they had a presence in Australia until I went to a viewing of the [Star Wars] Trilogy on May the 4th and learned about the Southern Cross Garrison. I wanted to sign up instantly,” he said.
“I always said when I bought my first home the first piece of furniture I would buy would be a Stormtrooper suit. I now have 2 suits and no home to call my own.”
Before joining the Southern Cross Garrison, Price had never put much thought into becoming a member or becoming a cosplayer. That was until one day something inside of him, some kind of force awakening, made him realise this was his destiny.
“Before the Legion I had never thought to do cosplay. I always appreciated the effort involved but never felt strongly enough about something to want to be that character. I knew I always wanted to be a Stormtrooper,” he said.
Pictured: Andy Price photographed by Southern Cross Garrison.
How much goes into the costumes of the 501st members?
It can sometimes take months to construct armour for your 501st outfit. Whether you’re dressing up as an Imperial, a Clone Trooper or a First Order baddie, the cosplay outfits can set you back a hefty sum of money.
Price jokes that he is in denial about how much he has spent on outfits across his time with Souther Cross Garrison.
“How much I have spent, and how much I say I have spent are two different things,” Price said.
“The biggest issue we have in Australia is shipping, the bulk of our costumes come as kits out of the USA and my Stormtrooper kit took US$300 to get here.
“I really don't want to know how much I spend,” he said.
The costs invested in the costumes as well as the time dedicated to collecting and constructing their costumes highlights how far the 501st are prepared to go to help out with charity work.
How can Star Wars fans get involved in the Southern Cross Garrison or the 501st Legion?
Getting involved in the 501st isn’t an easy thing. It takes time, dedication and practice. You need to live life like a Stormtrooper, you need to think like a Stormtrooper and most importantly, you need to look like a Stormtrooper.
“To become a member of the 501st, you need a screen accurate costume based off a Star Wars character, build it to suit the rules and wear it once a year,” Price said.
With a continuously expanding film universe, a vast library of comics and books, two long running TV shows and a merchandise line the length of the Great Wall of China, the Star Wars brand is one of the biggest and most profitable in the world. It is great to see that charity and community work can be included in such a well know and iconic franchise.
Learn more about the Southern Cross Garrison here.