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Welcome Back: Lilo & Stitch, Merida spotted playing dress up to help kids - The Pitt News

The Pitt News

Welcome Back: Lilo & Stitch, Merida spotted playing dress up to help kids

By Ilya Yashin / Staff Writer

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No, she isn’t a hallucination — that’s Tinkerbell blowing bubbles in Schenley Plaza.

Tori Prettyman, a Point Park University freshman studying sports, arts and entertainment management, plays Tinkerbell for Volunteer Princesses, a local group dedicated to helping children. 

Volunteer Princesses has 12 members, whose ages range from 14 to 27. They dress up as Disney and comic book characters and host free children’s events around the city. During these events, some of the volunteers are in costume and others help set up and run the events. 

Rachel Makary, the group’s founder and an incoming freshman special education major at Carlow University, plays Merida, the red-haired archer from Disney and Pixar’s “Brave.”

“I want to make kids happy and not all kids get to go to Disney World, especially not the kids at the nonprofits that we visit,” she said. “We’re able to bring that magic they could’ve experienced … without the struggle or hassle financially, emotionally or physically.”

The group originated in June 2012 when Makary, a Pittsburgh native who was attending a boarding school in another state and was home for the summer, made Merida’s costume for fun as a crafting project. While she, wearing the costume, was waiting for a ride home in Carnegie Library of Oakland, children started coming up to her to ask for a picture or to read them a story.

The outdoor events are usually scheduled to coincide with holidays, such as July 4, when there are many people around. The Volunteer Princesses paint children’s faces, blow bubbles with them, play games, draw, read picture books and tell their characters’ stories — all while remaining in character. The number of characters present depends on the members’ availability.

“For me, it’s the connection with the kids,” Prettyman said. “I’m very big on Disney and animated things like that, so whenever I see a kid who’s also like that it makes me really excited, because I want them to continue dreaming and never give up that childlike manner that they have.”

Most events usually last two to three hours, Makary said, and most kids who come are four and five years old.

The group also offers its services to local nonprofit organizations with children, such as Carnegie Library, Children’s Hospital and the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. There, they play games that have to do with the characters’ stories, read picture books together and teach art classes — all for free.

During an event at the Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing to families of children receiving life-saving medical care, Makary met a girl who had undergone a bone marrow transplant and whose favorite princess was Merida. The girl’s mother then told Makary that her daughter had gotten up early that morning to put on her princess dress hours in advance, even though she needed to rest after her surgery. 

“I was like, ‘I can do so much more with this costume than just be a person who walks around in it,” Makary said.

She and her friends organized several events that summer, at places such as the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh and the Ronald McDonald House, but little else happened until this summer, when Makary returned to Pittsburgh for good and decided to put her efforts in the group’s development.

The members either make or buy their costumes and parents sometimes donate supplies. The group’s name is misleading, because it is not limited to princesses; there are three men in the group who often dress up as comic book characters.

Since the group’s first event, Makary has been emailing nonprofits and local blogs, such as the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and Play Pittsburgh, to offer their services and draw parents’ attention. In addition, she is working on registering Volunteer Princesses as an official nonprofit organization.

Makary also reaches out to people in search of new members. She said many people offered to help after the Volunteer Princesses were featured on the Humans of Pitt Facebook page, which posts photos of and quotes from random people on the street.

Kristina Pacifico, a freshman at Point Park University with an undecided major, plays Lilo from Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch” and said volunteering has always been fun for her.

“I always like giving back to the community, and it’s just really fun and nice to see the kids be so excited when they see a character in costume,” Pacifico said.

Though it will be more difficult to do because of classes and work, the group plans to continue its work during the school year. Events will be shorter and less frequent, Makary said, but they are also hoping to gain more members.

Makary said she wants be a part of Volunteer Princesses even after graduating from college — if not participating, then at least planning.

Prettyman agreed.

“I’m hoping now it will get bigger. I definitely want to stay for that, I want to be able to see the growth, to reach out to the children even after I graduate college,” she said.

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Welcome Back: Lilo & Stitch, Merida spotted playing dress up to help kids