By Holly Desrosier
During this eventful time of year, it’s easy to get caught up in all the festivities and overlook those who may not be having the happiest of holidays. Craven Community College (Craven CC) student James Seay has gone out of his way to make sure this is not the case, giving children across the state a reason to smile.
Seay was born in Alabama, but he has lived in North Carolina since he was five years old. Both of his parents were in the Marine Corps and stationed at Cherry Point. Following their military lead, Seay joined the Air Force in 1993. After only two and a half years, he was injured in Iraq and was unable to perform his job. He joined the Army in 2003 and was injured again five years later in Afghanistan. In 2010, Seay retired after 17 years of service due to medical issues.
“So that’s why I’m in school now,” he said. “Not because I have to be—I want to be so I can go back to work and try to retire a second time.”
Now a resident of Beaufort, he began attending Craven CC in 2014. But life got in the way, as it often does, and forced him to take a break from school to focus on his three children, now ages five, 10 and 22.
For the last year and a half, Seay has been active with the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Eastern North Carolina. Make-A-Wish is a nonprofit organization that helps fulfill the wishes of children between the ages of two and 18 who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation’s mission is simple yet powerful: “Together, we create life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses.” For some children, their wish is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disney World to meet their favorite characters and go on exciting rides. But for others who may not be able to venture that far from the hospital bed, their wish may not be able to be fulfilled.
Seay had known about the Make-A-Wish organization for quite some time and got involved with them by chance. An avid Star Wars fan, he had begun creating costume replicas of two widely recognizable characters: the storm trooper and Darth Vader.
“I started building the storm trooper armor one Halloween because my son wanted to be Darth Vader, so I figured it’d be funny to have a two foot Darth Vader and a six-foot-plus storm trooper walking next to him,” Seay recalled. “And it just escalated from there.”
Seay makes the costumes from scratch to ensure the parts are legitimate and resemble the originals as much as possible. Depending on skill level and the complexity of the design, it can take over a year to complete one costume. It also involves a lot of prep work, including researching the design and ordering all the needed parts.
“It took about two years for Vader,” he said. “The research part is what I started with, and then once I started to build him it took about a year to do that; the storm trooper about the same. But the actual hands-on part for the storm trooper armor was about six months.”
For Seay, the effort pays off in the end. “It’s worth it once you get it all done,” he said. “There’s a huge sense of accomplishment.” He is in the process of getting a machine to make the armor, which will reduce the wait time for ordering and receiving various parts.
He uses his passion for children and love of Star Wars to bring happiness to children across the state whenever and wherever he is needed. If Make-A-Wish doesn’t have an event planned, Seay does his best to get involved in local events.
“If we know there’s some kind of festival, we’ll set up a booth and we’ll do Make-A-Wish there,” he said. “So we’re constantly trying to raise money for them somehow, someway.”
What separates Seay from other costumed impersonators is his uncanny ability to get into character. While dressed as Darth Vader, the menacing dark overlord and main antagonist of the wildly successful Star Wars franchise, Seay’s mannerisms so closely mimic those of the movie character that it would send chills down the spines of true fans.
He doesn’t even break character when spoken to or curiously prodded—the only sound comes from a highly realistic sound system built into his costume: buttons on his belt that he can push to recite different Darth Vader quotes and a soundboard that continuously loops the sound of the villain’s infamously laborious breathing. He recently swapped that out for a new system that modulates his own voice to sound like Vader’s. Combined with his tall stature and the realistic costume, it produces an alarmingly flawless portrayal.
His own children have already picked up on the power of volunteering. They have a blast traveling to different events with their Darth Vader dad (just imagine how many times he’s used the “I am your father” line).
“My son comes with me to a lot of the events and helps to raise money for Make-A-Wish by helping out with little games that we have set up for donations,” he said. “My 22-year-old daughter also comes with me and she is in the process of trying to make her own outfit to wear along with me.”
Seay has volunteered for many different groups and events in the area, including the Havelock Chili Festival, Toys for Tots, the Raleigh Christmas parade, food drives and children’s hospitals. He also attends games for the Special Needs Baseball League of Jacksonville and New Bern and recently handed out medals during their award ceremony.
“We do all kinds of stuff,” he said. “Anything charitable we try to get involved in.”
While he clearly has a fun time volunteering and going into character for these events, it also runs much deeper. “I do it because I can imagine if my kids were in that situation,” he explained. “If my kid was sick and he liked Star Wars, and he could see Darth Vader walking down the hospital hallway, he’d be so happy—even if it’s for like five minutes or so. That’s why I do it, because I can imagine if I was in their shoes.”
Now that his life has calmed down a bit, Seay is back at Craven CC in hopes of obtaining a degree and a career. Despite feeling lost after being out of school for 23 years, he has truly enjoyed his time at Craven CC.
“I have met a lot of great people and made a lot of good friends,” said Seay. “I would and have actually recommended other people to come to Craven for classes. I really like the way I was supported by the teachers and staff when I first started classes.”
The college has helped give him a sense of direction and will serve as a stepping-stone in his educational journey. Upon graduating from Craven CC, Seay plans to attend ECU and earn a degree in history.
“I do feel that I’m prepared for the second part of my adult future thanks to Craven,” he said. “I have a little bit more work to do before I’m done, but I know when I am done I’ll be ready for the next step.”
Until then, he will continue to use the force to thrill hundreds of children across the state and brighten their holiday season.
This article also appeared in the Sun Journal.