From monthly visits to Mary Free Bed’s children’s floor to special appearances at Fifth Third Ballpark, Relay for Life, Gilda’s Club events and more, the Cosplay Crusaders are using their superpowers to lift kids’ spirits across Grand Rapids.
The group, which formed just under a year ago, embodies a slew of superheroes: Spiderman, Supergirl, Arrow, Batman, Captain America, Star-Lord, Wonder Woman, Hawkeye, Deadpool, Flash, Captain Hydra, Iron Fist, Crossbones, The Punisher and Mystique, to name a few.
Their goal is a simple one: to make a kid’s day better, even if just for a few minutes.
The group emerged almost by accident. Co-founders Zach Balakas and Dannie Sue Bushroe said they bought their first superhero costumes last year to attend the Grand Rapids Griffins’ superhero theme night. While at the game, Balakas said a kid in the stands became enamored with him; sure he was the real Spiderman.
“I couldn’t take the mask off for the whole game. I couldn’t ruin it for him,” Balakas said. “I went down and signed autographs as Spiderman.”
Realizing the power of their costumes, the pair began getting involved with cosplay in Grand Rapids, with Balakas continuing his role as Spiderman and Bushroe taking on the identity of Supergirl. They signed on with Grand Rapids Comic Con to participate in a villain theme night with the West Michigan Whitecaps last summer and took part in a few other cosplay opportunities.
The group officially formed when Balakas reached out to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital last fall to see if the hospital would be interested in a superhero visit. At that point, he and Bushroe partnered with another couple, Val and Doug Saunders, forming the Cosplay Crusaders.
“We went to DeVos Children’s Hospital for a visit and we took it from there,” Bushroe said. “We really liked what we were doing and started growing the group from that point.”
Today, Cosplay Crusaders consists of 10 members and has a growing list of summer events where they’ll appear, including Zeeland’s Zeelmania block party on July 24, the West Michigan Whitecaps Superhero Night on July 29, and two events at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Maker Faire on Aug. 19-20 and Night at Your Museum on Dec. 27.
The Cosplay Crusaders also make monthly visits to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, or MFB, where they typically play with six to eight kids staying at the hospital. “We play air hockey with them and if it’s a nice day we might go outside and play with them,” Bushroe said.
Deb Brewer, child life specialist at MFB, said the Cosplay Crusaders help patients and their families have “super days.”
“The crusaders have brought pure joy and excitement to the pediatric patients and families here at MFB,” she said. “The kids and families really look forward to their visits.”
Brewer said besides having a lot more fun playing games with a superhero, the Cosplay Crusaders have also gone above and beyond for MFB patients. “The crusaders take extra time to talk and play, and they sometimes sit down to dinner with the patients and families,” she said. “They also bring superhero gifts for every patient. They’ve come back for extra visits when some superheroes were missing and we had special requests. They really make a one-on-one connection with the kids.”
Balakas still often dresses as Spiderman, but he said he’s recently taken on Arrow as well. He explained his character choices, saying there are aspects of each he can relate to personally.
“I started as Spiderman because as a kid it was a big character for me to believe in. He’s very relatable as Peter Parker, because I wasn’t the popular kid or the athletic kid. I got beat up in school, bullied and chased. I was overweight and I shopped in the husky section. So for me to be able to become that for another kid was very cool.
“And I recently picked up Arrow from The CW. There is that darkness and standoffishness and loner thing. I have raging social anxiety, believe it or not, but behind the mask or hood, I’ll dance, roll a hula-hoop, whatever.”
Bushroe said taking on a superhero identity has also helped her overcome social anxiety. “I get to have fun, and it’s helped with social anxiety and interacting and gotten me out of my introvert shell a bit more.”
She said her favorite superheroes growing up actually came from the Marvel comics and X-Men universe, but those characters tend to be less well-known, so she decided to adopt the more recognizable Supergirl as her alter ego.
“I started watching the show [Supergirl airs on The CW network] and I actually really relate with the character in the show more than the character in the comics,” she said.
“The show is sort of political lately (dealing) with feminist issues and I relate to those, and just seeing little girls feel empowered when they see Supergirl, knowing they can be these things, Supergirl or Batgirl. I enjoy seeing them get into it.”
Bushroe and Balakas said it’s been great to find a way to volunteer and give back that is unique and fun for kids as well as for themselves.
“It’s a very humbling and awesome experience, getting to do this,” Balakas said. “We do it for fun. We all have adult jobs and big kid responsibilities [Balakas is a bicycle mechanic and Bushroe works for Children’s Protective Services]. It’s a cool chance for us to unwind and give something back. It’s the least we could do.”
To become a Cosplay Crusader, potential members have to be at least 18 years old, pass a background check, have their costume approved and participate in a few events.
To book the Cosplay Crusaders for your next event or charity fundraiser, visit the Cosplay Crusaders on Facebook.
*All photos courtesy of Cosplay Crusaders.