Once upon a time (in the summer of 2012), Rachel Makary transformed herself into Merida, the red-haired princess protagonist from the Disney and Pixar movie “Brave” and what happened next was bigger than Rachel could have ever imagined.
Once upon a time (in the summer of 2012), Rachel Makary carefully transformed herself into Merida, the red-haired princess protagonist from the Disney and Pixar movie Brave and set forth for a photo shoot at Schenley Plaza and the Carnegie Library ofPittsburgh.
When she and her photographer arrived in the park, they were”absolutely bombarded by children,” Makary recalls- children who wanted photos, and who wanted the princess to read them stories.
That day in Schenley Plaza made Makary think. She loved the kids-and the photo session-but maybe there was something more she could do. Could her love of cosplay (short for costume play) serve a greater purpose-bringing joy to the children of Pittsburgh?
Cosplay is actually a performance art in which participants (cosplayers) dress to represent specific characters or ideas. Cosplay applies to any costumed role-play that doesn’t take place on the stage, and, according to Makary, it’s very popular in thePittsburgh area.
It’s also no surprise that Makary thrives on cosplay.
Makary’s father was an actor in Russia—her family immigrated toPittsburgh in 1995—and she grew up around the theatre and elaborate costumes. “I was always dressing up and I loved it,” she says. “I was always the one making costumes for me and my friends forHalloween.”
Beyond her love of dressing up, Makary had a deep desire to giveback to her community.
Attending Jewish schools all her life instilled a spirit of service-something she would later find at Carlow University. “InJewish school, they teach tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for ‘repairing the world,'” she explains. “I’ve always had a passion for volunteering and helping others, especially because my family came to America with nothing.”
What if she and fellow cosplayers could dress as beloved princesses and reach out to children-particularly those in need?
“I went home after that day and said [to my friends], ‘Guys, we need to do this. We need to put this together,'” recalls Makary.”‘It would be super fun.'” Her friends enthusiastically agreed and said they’d also make costumes and help when needed. They decided to call themselves the Volunteer Princesses.
The Volunteer Princesses began offering different free events, from “meet and greets” and photo opportunities to dramatic storytelling and face painting. Their greatest mission: to bring joy to children, especially those experiencing difficult times, such as frightening childhood illnesses.
Their first event was at Ronald McDonald House of Pittsburgh, an organization that provides housing to families of children receiving life-saving medical care. “We were nervous, and our costumes weren’t the best, but the kids loved it,” says Makary.”Parents told us how excited the kids were, and from then on, we said, ‘We’ve got to keep doing this!'”
Rachel dressed as Snow White.
During her junior year of high school, Makary started looking at colleges. She knew she wanted to be back in Pittsburgh and major in special education. Her aunt, Carlow alumna Anna Mednik ’02, encouraged her to put Carlow on her list.
Part of the reason Makary’s family immigrated was so that Mednik could get a better education. “Many of my aunt’s college credits from Russia didn’t transfer to American universities,” says Makary.”Carlow helped her through that process and gave her scholarships.So [my] aunt came here, and that’s how Carlow became part of ourlife.”
Mednik graduated from Carlow’s special education program and is now a teacher in Maryland. Growing up, Makary spent a lot of time volunteering with Mednik at her school and fell in love with teaching and helping special needs children.
Makary was thrilled to be accepted to Carlow (she wrote aboutVolunteer Princesses in her application essay), and hopes one day to work professionally with children as a speech therapist.
Meanwhile, during the summer after high school graduation, she planned and executed a re-launch of the Volunteer Princesses. There-launch included an expansion of services (all of which are free)and volunteers and a public event back where it all started—Schenley Plaza.
As word of the organization spread via social media,Pittsburgh-based “Mommy Blogs,” word-of-mouth, and news stories, Makary, who says she was always very well organized, found herself basically running a small business. “It’s a volunteer organization right now,” says Makary, whose stepmother helps manage the business. “We’re working to make it into an official non-profit.”
Now with more than 30 volunteers—including both women and men who dress up as princesses and superheroes—the Volunteer Princesses delight the children of Pittsburgh through appearances at nonprofit organizations, women’s shelters, community events, and birthday parties; and by hosting their own free, public events
Organizations or individuals hosting events can request princesses, princes, superheroes, and various TV and movie characters from Volunteer Princesses. Once a request is made, Makary puts the call out to her volunteers to see who can attend.
This summer, princesses and helpers appeared at various community events and activities throughout Pittsburgh including a screening of Disney’s Frozen in Schenley Park. They also hosted an art class at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and held two public events in Schenley Plaza where the princesses took photos, read stories, painted faces, and completed art projects with children.
“Many teenagers and young adults want to get involved, but they don’t know how—they don’t have an outlet or know how to sign up,”says Makary. “I knew I loved working with children and I loved dressing up-this was the perfect thing for me to do.”