NAUGATUCK — When Jolene Rodriguez and her daughter Arissa, 6, were at Naugatuck’s Duck Day event in June, they ran into Wonder Woman, who appeared as if she had just leaped off a movie or TV screen and into their lives.
Wonder Women was part of The Band of Heroes, a local volunteer group that attends events like Duck Day in full costume.
The group helps raise money for local animal shelters and entertain at private parties for children who are too ill to leave their house. Members travel all over Connecticut, and into Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, attending hundreds of events each year.
The Band of Heroes started in 2014 when Templeton Peck, 28, of Naugatuck, began showing up at smaller events with her friends.
The big break for the group came when Peck was involved in a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research about four years ago at the XL Center in Hartford.
A representative from the fundraiser approached her and asked if she wanted to come in costume, so she brought friends and they did meet and greets with the attendees.
“I was at first approached by one of the Michael J. Fox representatives for the event to perform myself. … I immediately suggested bringing in my extremely talented friends to the event, and making it large scale. We had about 20 people for our first event, and almost every costume you see is handmade by the person wearing it, or representing an extremely talented tailor,” said Peck, who personally owns 40 costumes.
One of Peck’s favorite costumes is Rocket Raccoon from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. She had the costume handmade, and she added finishing touches herself, like real raccoon hair. The costume and mask cost about $2,000.
Her personal seamstress, Minerva Maldonado of Waterbury, also spends hours helping her put together the outfits, or sewing blankets and small items as donations to the organizations she works with.
Peck, a former wrestler, said the group of volunteers is now up to more than 100 who transform into thousands of characters — from Wonder Women to Peter Pan to the characters in “The Blues Brothers” movie.
“You can tell they research every little detail. They are very good about being in character. They are so lifelike,” Jolene Rodriguez said. “It’s like the character has popped out of your TV screen.”
Arissa Rodriguez said it was exciting to see Wonder Woman, her favorite character, in real life.
“She had black hair and she had her costume on and had boots on,” Arissa Rodriguez said.
“They are really good with the kids,” Jolene Rodriguez said. “My daughter is a big fan of them.”
Peck said encounters with some of the children they meet are heartbreaking and all are heartwarming.
“Your heart breaks at the same time it’s being filled with love,” she said.
At times, too, children tell the volunteers heartbreaking stories of abuse they’ve suffered, and the adults are obligated to report it to the police.
“There’s no filter,” she said. “Kids have come to us about situations and we’ve had to go to the police about it.
“We’ve had kids who’ve experienced abuse come forward to us because we’re safe to speak to and will fight for them.” she said. “Even if we just tell a police officer, kids who’ve experienced tremendous loss, or kids who are themselves struggling with disease, ailment, terminal illnesses, or who’ve lost a parent or sibling. Their courage is always so extraordinary.”
Peck said she is working to get 501c 3 classification status so she can run the group as a nonprofit.
“We have a great team. Everyone helps everyone out,” Peck said. “Every single one of us is a volunteer.”
Members of the group also help one another. Peck was in a car accident this summer caused by a teenager who was texting and driving. She was injured so badly she can’t drive, so other volunteers pick her up, driving her to events.
Some of the volunteers compete in Cosplay competitions and many go to New York Comic Con. Because of connections she made at Comic Con, Peck was invited to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange in October of 2015.
Peck said she is able to run the volunteer organization because she was paid well while a wrestler working for Superstars of Wresting in New Jersey, so she wants to give back. She is also working to get a real estate license.
The group has a Facebook page and often gets messages from someone who works for a charity. Even when they get called last minute — like the day of an event — someone is usually able to get there in costume, she said.
“So many of these kids, sick or not, need heroes,” Peck said.
“You could look anywhere and not find a more dedicated team than the people volunteering here at The Band of Heroes. Everyone with a passion for helping others is doing their best with what they can offer,” Peck added. “Some people just sew or make costume parts, or come to an event to take photos so we make sure the families, and the organizations, have memories to come grab freely at our Facebook page.”