A unique steampunk convention raises money for breast and cervical cancer.

The tale of Vandalia-Con didn’t begin with a “Once upon a time.” It began with a far more interesting phrase: “Wouldn’t it be funny if?”

One winter’s day in 2014, Shelly Dusic and her husband, Bret, stayed at Parkersburg’s Blennerhassett Hotel. Dusic, who works for the West Virginia Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program (WVBCCSP), thought the hotel would make a perfect venue for a cancer awareness event. Bret thought its historic architecture had the right backdrop for a steampunk convention.

“Before we got onto Route 50, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we did both?’” Dusic says.

That initial question led to a follow-up: “Steam-what?”

Misconceptions spanned from comic book superheroes to rock ’n’ roll. But, Dusic explains, just as football fans follow their teams and dress in their teams’ colors, lovers of science fiction and fantasy cosplay in different subgenres. There are the Star Wars fans and the Game of Thrones devotees. “And those who like tea parties and Around the World in Eighty Days? That’s steampunk,” she says.

In 2014 the first Vandalia-Con, a hybrid steampunk convention–health fair–cancer prevention fundraiser, came to be. Folks flocked to the Blennerhassett Hotel in true steampunk fashion―a whimsical mash-up of Victorian-era top hats and corsets outfitted with “retrofuture” accessories.

The convention is far more than cosplay. It’s cause-play. Every penny raised supports breast and cervical cancer intervention programs, namely Bonnie’s Bus. This mobile mammography unit provides breast cancer screening especially to under- and uninsured women. In five years, Vandalia-Con has given more than $25,000 to Bonnie’s Bus, and all of its in-kind donations and volunteer hours support WVBCCSP.

Singing groups and dancing troupes lend their talents, and volunteers put on workshops. “As soon as people realize there’s an opportunity to help by doing what they love to do, the generosity is incredibly humbling and amazing to behold,” Dusic says.

Vandalia-Con is also a home for those seeking medical assistance. One year, an attendee whose mother had passed away young from breast cancer wanted to be screened. Those at Vandalia-Con rallied to get special dispensation to pay for her mammogram on Bonnie’s Bus. “She caught me in the hallway, ran up, and gave me the biggest hug,” Dusic says. Even two men, due to their VandaliaCon involvement, later sought cancer screening that detected their cancers early enough to receive treatment.

A new chapter is unfolding for the sixth annual Vandalia-Con. Dusic loved working with the Blennerhassett Hotel, but a move to Morgantown made sense. Most of the convention’s organizers live in the Morgantown area, and the city is one that has enacted a nondiscrimination ordinance. So October 18 through 20, a flurry of glamorous skirts and bright parasols and one giant flower-covered bus will descend upon the Hampton Inn & Suites at University Town Centre. Dusic says Vandalia-Con is for everyone, though—no costumes required. All that’s needed is a desire to have fun and do good.

Even when the door closes on this year’s Vandalia-Con, it’s not the end. It’s an “until next time,” and that’s Dusic’s favorite part. “Everyone is exhausted, none of us have slept for two days,” she says, “but I still have at least an hour’s worth of hugs and goodbyes.” @vandaliacon.org on Facebook

Photo courtesy of Shelly Dusic

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Jess Walker
Written by Jess Walker
Jess Walker came to West Virginia to pursue her master’s degree in English, but stayed for the culture, nature, and stories. She writes for WV Living and Morgantown magazines. Her best ideas happen when she’s outdoors, preferably near a river and with a cup of coffee in hand.