story by Kelly Harley
photos by Miranda Osborn
There’s a good chance you’ve met Gayle Kicklighter before and didn’t even know it. When she makes an appearance, she’s usually donning a giant hairy outfit and goes by the name of Chewbacca. She’s a Star Wars fanatic and her love of everything Star Wars is making a big impact in the local community. Gayle, a Pooler resident, is part of the 501st Legion, a worldwide Star Wars all-volunteer organization that brings together costume enthusiasts to promote interest in Star Wars, use the costumes for Star Wars-related events as well as contribute to local communities through appearances and volunteer work.
“It’s a group where I get to enjoy my passion for Star Wars, but I also can give back,” says Gayle. “Whenever you do a troop (also known as a visit) and you’re doing it for kids, just seeing one smile and them losing themselves in fantasy, makes it worth it.”
Gayle pours her heart and time into her passion. Despite working full-time at a marketing firm that sells sugar, she spends nearly all of her free time with the 501st Legion. She laughs when she says her husband tells her she spends too much time with the club. “If I wasn’t in the club, my weekends would be free,” admits Gayle.
While the 501st Legion is a worldwide organization, nearly every state has its own garrison. Just this year, Gayle was nominated by her peers to be the commanding officer of the state of Georgia. That means she’s responsible for club protocol, the legion charter and maintaining the club’s activity in the state as well as participating in events.
Currently, there are five squads in the state: Coastal Empire, Ocmulgee, Outlander, Venator and Terminus. There are more than 200 state-wide members and 24 in the Savannah area. Gayle says when she first started doing this eight years ago, there were only three members in this area. She says the small group worked hard to build a reputation. “We would visit the Ronald McDonald house, participate in the Red Shoe Run and October Fest. We were doing anything we could do to build awareness of our mission.”
Last year, the Coastal Empire squad participated in about 25 local events. Gayle says one of the most rewarding events was Memorial Hospital’s reverse trick or treat event for sick children. “We dressed in full gear and came with giant buckets filled with candy,” says Gayle. “We visited each child and spent time with them. One child got so excited and was asking to take pictures with us. When we were leaving, the nurse said he hadn’t smiled in weeks.”
Along with hospital visits, club members participate in Star Wars movie premieres, library visits, free comic book day, Savannah Comic Con, Jekyll Island Comic Con, conventions and parades. In fact, this year the Coastal Empire squad will make their debut in the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day parade. “We’ve been trying for years to get a spot in the parade and we finally got one,” says Gayle. “There will be lots of Stormtroopers, Mandalorians, Rebels and Darth Vader.”
Because the 501st Legion is an all-volunteer organization, Gayle says everything she spends on her passion comes out of her pocket. Members are required to have movie quality costumes and they put thousands of miles on their cars traveling to events across the state. Gayle’s favorite costume is her Chewbacca, which she made from scratch seven years ago. The hair in the mesh suit is latch hooked in and her mask was made by lifecasting her face. She then took that mold and made a latex rubber mold in which she punched all the hairs in it. Gayle says the material cost about $500, but when you add in the hours it took her to complete, you can’t put a price on it. “We take our costumes very seriously, they all have certain requirements and if something isn’t right, you have to fix it.”
If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing one of these costumes, you’ll understand what Gayle means. For example, you don’t have to be a Star Wars buff to recognize one of the club’s Stormtroopers. Their white armor, large helmets and survival equipment are top-notch. Gayle says a lot of work is spent making a Stormtrooper costume. You purchase vacuum-form plastic and cut it to fit you. After gluing and riveting the pieces together, you have to assemble it. Usually, the costume fits only the person it was made for.
When you look at the impact
Gayle and her peers are making, you gain a perspective on why they do it. The 501st Legion is known as the “Bad Guys Doing Good.” In 2016, nearly $900,000 in direct donations were contributed in honor of the Legion.
When club members do a visit, they don’t take any money, instead, they ask that donations be made in honor of a charity. Here locally, money is raised for organizations such as Coastal Pet Rescue. The 501st Legion also raised $150,000 for its Make-A-Wish Endowment. The endowment will allow Make-A-Wish America and Make-A-Wish International to grant Star Wars-related wishes to children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions. Not only is the Legion raising much-needed funds, members donate thousands of hours to help their local communities. In 2016, worldwide, more than 182,000 volunteer hours were contributed by 12,000 members.
Gayle says the Coastal Empire group tries to make every event they are asked to attend. Whether it be a convention, a visit to a Boy Scout troop, or an occasional wedding, members are willing to go the extra mile to help the community. “Our Coastal Empire squad tries to keep everything local and give to local groups,” says Gayle.
If you’re a Star Wars fanatic or are considering becoming one, you can join the 501st Legion. You have to be 18 years of age or older and you have to have an approved costume. While Gayle doesn’t make as many costumes as she used to, she’s always willing to lend a helping hand.
When asked why she does it, Gayle has one reason, “It’s a lot of fun.”
Gayle admits that it’s also a lot of hard work, long days, long drives and sometimes the costumes get very hot; however, there’s never a moment when she doesn’t want to do it.
For more information about the 501st Legion, visit www.501st.com.