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“Saving the Mothers of Invention”

A steampunk con raises funds for breast cancer screening and education in West Virginia

Friday, May 18, 2018
Bonnie's Bus

Many steampunk events raise money for charity, but few are as tied to their cause as Vandalia-Con, a steampunk and science-fiction convention scheduled for May 25-26 at the Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Now in its fifth year, the convention was founded by Shelly Dusic, aka The Captain, who works as a health information specialist for the West Virginia Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program.

The event raises funds for the program as well as Bonnie’s Bus, which travels throughout the state offering breast cancer mammography services. Many recipients are uninsured or underinsured women in rural areas who otherwise don’t have access to those services.

At the convention, “we provide education about cancer risks, and what screenings are available, and we navigate people to services in the area,” she says. Three people, she says, were directed to cancer screening due to their involvement with the convention, and thanks to early diagnosis are now cancer survivors. 

A new model of the bus, funded in part by proceeds from the convention, will be parked outside and available for screening appointments.

This is all summed up in the event’s tagline: “Saving the Mothers of Invention.”

A varied program

Of course, it’s a steampunk convention, and this one has a varied program that includes contests, classes, panels, gaming, live music, and a vendor area. Special guests include the “crazed carnies” of Karnevil, as well as Professor Phineus T. Bubblemaker, a purveyor of “Eclectic Entertainment and Preposterous Pastimes.” His presentations will include a kids’ science class.


“Cosplay is huge in this area,” Dusic says, so there’s a costume contest and several “how-to” sessions: “Coping through Cosplay,” “Cosplay on a Budget,” “Breathing Life into Your Character,” and a “Cosplay Q&A” with local enthusiasts. Another class, “Creating a Steampunk Character,” will cover character development in cosplay in addition to writing and roleplay.

The con’s Makers Display and Competition is open to “costumes, accessories, gadgets, gizmos, stories, photographs, paintings, and anything else your imagination can create,” as long as it can fit through a standard door.

Andrew Ragland of FASA Games will present multiple demos of ”1879”, the company’s steampunk tabletop roleplaying game. “We will also have a table in the dealer room, selling not only 1879 but Earthdawn, Demonworld, and Noble Armada as well,” he says. “Also, our art director will be with us, and will be doing portfolio reviews.”

“Mr. Cat by the Fire” on Saturday night will feature storytelling and a cappella singing by Bret Dusic, aka Mr. Cat, a steampunk artist who happens to be Shelly’s husband.


One goal of the convention is to highlight women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and this year’s keynote speaker is Julia Oswald PhD of Harvard Medical School. The talk, “From Bionic Eyes to Stem Cell Therapy,” doesn’t sound very steampunk, but Dusic says it will include topics in Victorian science.

Marketing strategist George Cicci will offer insights into Facebook marketing for independent artists and writers. He’s also slated for a presentation on “ADHD as a Superpower.”

The complete schedule is posted on the website. Tickets cost $30 for an adult day pass (15 and older) and $20 for a child day pass. Weekend passes cost $60 for adults and $40 for kids.

White Hats vs. Black Hats

Each year’s convention has a theme determined by a vote of the previous year’s participants, and this time it’s “Wild West Adventure.” Over the course of the weekend, participants amass tickets through various activities, such as contests and panel participation. At the end, they use those tickets to vote for one of two contenders. Last year, it was “Time Bandits” (Old West) vs. “Space Cadets” (Star Wars), and “Old West won hands down,” Dusic says. This year, the contenders for the 2019 convention will be “White Hats” vs. “Black Hats.”

Often, you need a hero, she says, but “occasionally, to get things done, you need an old-fashioned black-hat villain,” such as the robber barons who built the railroads.

The hotel is a historic landmark in Parkersburg that opened in 1889, and Dusic notes that “a lot of West Virginia was built up in the Victorian era.” The convention’s name is rooted in the state’s history, as “Vandalia” was an early name for the territory that now includes West Virginia.

Dusic tells a “full-circle story” tying that history to the convention. “Our timber and coal and oil helped build the Industrial Revolution,” she says. “The Industrial Revolution helped inspire stories by Jules Verne, and that type of literature led to steampunk. Now steampunk is giving back to the land that made it happen by helping the women of West Virginia.”

Photos courtesy of Vandalia-Con.

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