Stories of Our Neighbors: Lean on Me
Jen Costello and the healing powers of art, hope and love.
Jen Costello always knew she was different. Diagnosed at age 4 with cancer, she endured years of experimental radiation and chemotherapy. At 52, she lives with debilitating side effects.
“I’ve had so much radiation, I glow,” Costello says, laughing.
Eight years ago, Costello was depressed, focusing on her leg braces and cane. “People see canes and they see the disability,” she says, “not the person.” Determined to change that, she taught herself to carve. She made her first group of canes — shaped like No. 2 pencils — in 2013.
An artist with a mission was born.
Costello founded the Lean On Me Project, which provides free canes to others with disabilities. Today, Lean On Me partners with carvers across the U.S. and in three other countries; the project has donated more than 450 canes to people who rely on them in their daily lives.
When people request a cane, they’re asked to list three things they love, then artists design canes to represent those loves. Costello has carved canes shaped like Bigfoot, wizards and fishbowls. One of her canes is topped with a spaceship beaming up a cow.
“I love goofy things,” she says. “I love to see people smile.”
Costello’s three other loves: her wife, Deb; art in all forms; and giving back to the community in Jeannette, where she and fellow artist Mary Briggs built a gallery and makerspace called You Are Here.
“Art is for everybody,” Costello says. “Everyone can make something their own and find peace and pride. Art can bring us together when other things pull us apart.”
I majored in psychology and religion at Seton Hill. What a combination! I wanted to be a researcher. I took religious classes for personal reasons. I believe we all have a purpose. I don’t know what that purpose is, but I know each path we choose leads us in a direction, good or bad.
In 2003, Deb and I had a civil ceremony. It wasn’t legal for us to be married. We worked at the same company. We were fired from our jobs. Deb said, “You have to do something.” She’s a little older than me. If something happened to her, she needed to know I could take care of myself.
I never planned on college. I had to start at the beginning. Deb tutored me. I worked hard and graduated first in my department. I took my grandma to the graduation ceremony. I graduated with eight honors and looked like Mr. T, all those ribbons around my neck. My grandma said, “I always thought you were special. A little touched, maybe.” She seemed confused.
I always knew I was different because I was sick. But I was different because I wasn’t who I felt I was. I’d argue with my mom. I’d say, “Mom, I was born a boy. Right?” She’d say no, but I knew.
When I came home from the hospital, everybody expected to see this poor little cancer kid rolled up in a blanket. Instead my mom put this little sailor hat on me and said, “Go outside. Now.” And that’s how it was. I couldn’t do as much as everybody else, but I played softball, I scuba dove. I had to alter the way I did things. That’s how I approach life — find a way.
I can’t carve anymore. I have spasms. Nothing good happens when you spasm with a knife in your hand. So Mary said, “Let’s try clay.” I can’t use the wheel because I spasm and crush things. So Mary throws. I sculpt the faces and the handles and then I give them back and Mary fires and glazes them.
Who does that for someone? Who says, “I will start this and you will do this and I will help you finish it?”
My whole life I’ve believed if you have the right support, you can succeed in anything.
I feel so lucky.
Everything I do takes forever. That’s frustrating. I’ve had to learn patience and acceptance. Deb will say, “That’s enough. You’re tired.” But sometimes I want to keep going because my mind doesn’t stop. I’m a little kid when I’m creating. But I know if I don’t stop, I’ll be in bad shape. I’ve learned perseverance.
COVID gave me a break from doctors. Sometimes, because my cancer is so rare, I feel like an experiment. This year has been tele-doctors. There were no MRIs, no physical therapy. It was almost relaxing.
I wear the leg braces, I do the canes. Pretty soon it will be a wheelchair. I’ll have dialysis. I’m going to take clay with me then because I can do that while I have treatments. I make plans. I know I will always have something I can do or make. That gets me through.
Art is my purpose. It works with my abilities. It works with my disabilities. It shows me growth. It shows me pride. And it can show love and compassion.
At You Are Here, I know who people are when they come in. I see their Facebook posts and social media. But when they walk in the door, it feels like none of that exists. I would love to hold onto that.
But how do you go back to social media and see the things they say? I think, “My God, I sat across from you, and you really feel this way about gay people?” It’s going to be a hard adjustment after the pandemic to sit across the table from people who said things we disagree with, things they felt empowered to say.
I thought we were at a point of tolerance. Deb and I got fired in 2003. And here we are, almost 20 years later.
But hope is something I’ve always had. I’ve always believed if I can put both feet on the ground, there’s hope. I look at everything like that — art and life and people.
There’s always hope.
To see Jen Costello’s work and learn more about You Are Here and Lean On Me, visit yah406clay.org.
Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir “Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe” and several other books. She lives in Trafford and directs the Creative and Professional Writing Program at Pitt-Greensburg. For more, visit lorijakiela.net.
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