I’ve known Joe Bondi since we were kids. Over the years we lost touch, but re-connected through the magic of social media. Joe had posted many times about his involvement with the 501st Legion, an organization that supports charitable causes through costumed Star Wars enthusiasts. Being an avid Star Wars fan myself, it always caught my eye. When I told Joe about what I was planning for KarmaKaia he graciously accepted the invitation to answer my questions.
R: Tell us a little about yourself.
JB: I’m a resident of Mahopac NY. My wife and I moved in with my 86-year-old father who suffers from Alzheimer’s and dementia in order to care for him on a 24-7 basis. In my rare “spare-time,” I’m a New York Islanders hockey blogger (@Knight_of_Cups_ , knightofcups-bondi.blogspot.com), work in Business Development for Knight Realms & Sparta New Jersey Renaissance Festival, and an avid Dungeon Master (AD&D 2.5) and Wargamer (40k, X-Wing). I also do what I can for rescue animals and consider myself a pet lover.
R: I’ve seen you post many times about your involvement with the 501st Legion. Tell us about it – what is it, what does it do?
JB: I think the best way to describe the 501st is using our fandom to help make an impact for someone who really needs a smile. Part of our mission statement says, “…The Legion is an all-volunteer organization formed for the express purpose of bringing together costume enthusiasts under a collective identity within which to operate. The Legion seeks to promote interest in Star Wars through the building and wearing of quality costumes, and to facilitate the use of these costumes for Star Wars-related events as well as contributions to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work…”.
Much of the costume pieces are made by other members or small businesses who cater the 501st and groups like it. All the gear must follow strict guidelines and the costume must represent the way the character was portrayed in the movies or at least to the level they would have appeared. Some characters are from books, comics, video games, etc. Here was the list I followed to build my pinnacle costume. People can purchase kits, completed pieces or contract other members to build their gear.
It’s run by chapters or garrisons (& squads), and governed by the head group of the organization who ultimately “answer” to Lucas Film. They set the rules and each garrison command organizes the appearances, merchandise and group activities based on the way they would like their franchise to be represented to maintain the integrity of their intellectual property.
I joined the 501st in October of 2015 as a member of the Empire City Garrison and Hudson Valley Squad. Basically, I partner with other 501st members to lend our support to the valued charitable efforts of local, national and international organizations and just try to make a difference while at an appearance. In 2016, the organization raised $889,000 world-wide for charity. We just celebrated our 20th year and show no signs of stopping. Recently, I was humbled after being notified that I was the 2017 Hudson Valley Squad Trooper of the Year Award Winner. When you are recognized by a group of people you admire and respect, it’s both a humbling and inspiring experience. It’s an honor to serve with my fellow legionnaires and I have made some great friendships with garrison members all over the world. Having my wife and a few of my friends join in on the rewarding fun has only made the experience better for all of us.
My call sign is “Dedrite” and my designations are TI, IG, IC – 13222. Dedrite is the name of a fearsome mythical creature from my table top game world. My slogan is “Nothing is Ever Forgotten.” Take from that what you will. It comes from a late 80’s UK television series called “Robin of Sherwood”.
R: How did you get involved with the organization?
JB: Being a long-time gamer (AD&D, Warhammer 40k, etc), I’ve always loved the fluff of a well-crafted fantasy/sci-fi world and the parts of roleplay involved with pulling off the believability of a character from those worlds. I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since first seeing the movie in 77 and watched it over and over, whenever I got the chance.
After I lost 130 lbs a couple of years ago, I wanted to reward myself by considering what it took to join the 501st. Whether working a con for KnighRealms.com or going as a regular fan, I was impressed at the level of costumes these guys had and how they carried themselves. It just looked like fun. And I finally wouldn’t look ridiculous with my weight loss, so I researched on line and remembered what all the guys had told me over the years.
The starting info was easy to find online and the people in the local chapter (Empire City Garrison & Hudson Valley Squad) we super helpful with everything from website help to helping you find components for my chosen build: an Imperial Tie Pilot. I just looked at their event calendar and showed up, asking questions to any of the members who would answer me. I followed the process, did my due diligence and finally got approved in my first 3 costumes (Tie Reserve, Imperial Crew and Imperial Gunner) to start in Oct of 15. From there, I went for my goal. A full Tie Pilot and eventually, a 181st Tie Pilot from the expanded universe of Star Wars.
R: Describe the impact you’ve seen.
JB: The whole purpose of the 501st is to wear costumes of the empire and help increase the visibility and assist local, national and international charities with the appeal of those characters from the universe. We’ve helped raise money or even made appearances to events hosted by worthwhile agencies and organizations like Make-A-Wish, Montefiore Children’s hospital, Intrepid Thanksgiving and toys-for-tots events. To witness what goes on at an appearance and the way children and their families react to us is a powerful and humbling experience. All the guys and girls do it on their own dime, take off work and lend their resources to distract or enhance the experiences of the people we intend to distract from their problems, even if it’s only for a few minutes. If they can forget real life for just a little while, we have done what we set out to do. Some of the experiences I’ve had were so emotional and fulfilling, I was fortunate to have a helmet on. Sometimes, tears just happen, but that’s OK, because they are born in the moment and the experiences are so rewarding.
R: What advice do you have for others who may want to make a difference but aren’t quite sure how?
JB: Do the best you can with what you have to offer. Just try and be decent to people on a daily basis. Support through volunteering. Go to a local animal shelter, old-age home or special needs center and make others feel better about themselves and their situation. The results we seek aren’t always guaranteed, but the fact that you do your best to make a difference is a noble thing to strive for in my eyes. And its impact may be deeper more far reaching than you notice.
R: What inspires you?
JB: To be as happy as I can be. To try and overcome the challenges I face and help others do the same. While I have had my share of obstacles, seeing what others face daily has helped me appreciate what I have even more and make me realize even the strongest people feel beaten down from time to time. Waking up to spend each and every day with my intelligent, beautiful and amazing wife. Helping Dad, my family & friends with what I can do to make a difference in their lives. Seeing my 17-year-old cat roll over on her back to play when I walk into the room, see the 2 dogs I rescued from a kill shelter frolic and play without a care in the world. Being supportive of others who I may have just met, in hopes that something I do might help them, even in a small way. A kind or supportive gesture can mean life and death for a person who is having a rough time at the moment you decide to show them that kindness. I’ve seen it happen and it’s a powerful thing to behold.
R: Name 3 people who you think make the world better and why.
JB: My parents always taught me integrity was the most valuable trait one can aspire to have. I’m far from perfect and haven’t always been mistake free, but I’d like to think that what I’ve done right has been for the right reasons. They said the rest would most likely follow and if it didn’t, work harder to give yourself the best chances of success. My Dad gave me a lot of my confidence and protective nature, but my late Mother was an amazing person who battled through several setbacks and tragedies in her life, but stayed true through it all. She was the kindest, gentlest and most caring person I’ve ever known. She did things to do them and never worried about if her acts of kindness would be returned. Over my life until her death in 2013 from cancer, she continued to worry about others and put herself second. I witnesses the impact she had on those around her and I only hope to come close to making the kind of difference she was able to accomplish for so many people.
My wife, MaryBeth is the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. She is loving, supportive and unflinching when it comes to caring for others, above herself. After doing an amazing job raising 3 children to successful adults, she has taken on the relentless burden of helping me as a caregiver for my elderly Father. Caring for a senior with Alzheimer’s and Dementia is an exhausting and challenging way to go through life. All of our time is centered around Dad. All of her love and support, never complaining or wavering in the slightest, even though it’s such a heavy weight to bare day in and day out. Without her, I am not sure I could have accomplished what we have over the last 5 years with Dad. Her support is an invaluable resource in helping me to try and give back to a Father who has done so much for my family and I growing up. I am so grateful and love her so much for always being there with a smile.
I have a few people in my life who strive to make a difference in their own loves and the lives of family, friends or others around them. There are several who have my admiration, but I’d like to focus on just one at this time. My friend Jeffrey is multi-deployed, now retired U.S. Army E.O.D. veteran. He has overcome many things over his career that I could not even begin to process, but still sees the best side of others. He has been an invaluable friend to me over the years and inspires me to keep fighting when things seem lost. I am so proud of him and all he has done for our country, for all of his team members and fellow service members of the U.S. Military. For those of you that don’t know, an E.O.D tech neutralizes hazardous, explosive devices and chemical threats. They perform some of the most harrowing, dangerous work imaginable to protect others who serve, putting themselves at great risk, directly in harm’s way and in hostile places while doing so. He is an inspiration and one of the most courageous people I know. I am so lucky to have him in my life.
I’d like to acknowledge a 4th person if there’s time. Pro athletes and celebrities who use their influence and platform for the benefit of others deserve to be recognized. When you’ve achieved a major level of success, it would probably be easy to lose touch with reality. In my opinion, those who gain success through their hard work and strong and maybe a bit of support from others in their life tend to see a little more of those who are impacted by them. Many athletes have gotten my attention growing up, most from the world of pro hockey and what they contribute to the community. Most recently, Anders Lee of the New York Islanders and his efforts to raise money for pediatric cancer has made me take notice. His friendship with a Stage IV neuroblastoma survivor named Fenov Pierre-Louis was an amazing story to hear. After Lee heard Pierre-Louis speak about his illness on a video and the courage he showed, Lee was inspired to run the annual event in support of all children suffering from this horrible disease. In the 2nd year of the event, the Anders Lee Kancer Jam raised over $100,000 on 3/18 and another $90,000 for Cohen Children’s Medical Center last year. (Editor’s note: After Joe provided his answers but before the interview was posted he learned Fenov had just passed away.)
R: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Joe – I really appreciate it.