“May I offer you an A-OK?” asked a petite lady in a bright red cape and floral leggings. “It’s something that you’ve given. And something that you’ve gotten.”
An older gentleman, playing chess on his tablet, looked up quizzically at her from his table at the coffee shop.
“Do you want any money? I don’t have any money,” he said bluntly.
Susann Castore doesn’t want money. In fact, it’s that brisk, dismissive attitude toward strangers that she wants to help eliminate through The Kindness Project.
“I’m on a campaign to promote kindness, comfort and compassion in our state,” she explained. “And I need your help.”
She then hands out her smiley faces. “A smile to keep and one to give away. And when you do that, we are connecting.”
Castore, the unofficial Ambassador of Kindness for Ohio, said this idea began in 2000 but didn’t start it in Columbus until 2005. She is a licensed professional counselor who wanted to help people with their mental health by improving personal connections.
“We’re all downright human – and we all want to connect with each other – and sometimes we don’t because of what’s happened in our past,” explained Castore. “I feel like I reach more people on streets and in places than in an office bogged down with paper and just seeing people for a certain amount of sessions. There are people who need a lot more care than that.”
She knows this because she’s had trouble with mental illness for a long time.
“I am bipolar. It took 39 hospitalizations over almost a 16-year period [to get better],” she said. “I lost a 43-year marriage. I have two sons; one still has difficulty talking with me because of that. It was really rough.”
It was during this difficult time that other people’s acts of kindness made life a bit easier for her.
“All those years people reached out to me in kindness and gave me hope – that is why this all started,” Castore said. “If I can just simply make a difference in the world – leave something. I’ve received so much, I’d like to leave something; for my children, for whoever I can reach, whoever I can touch.”
She’s travelled hundreds of miles around Ohio to advocate kindness so that people receive that same hope and inspiration that helped her get better.
“I may do a different presentation to someone that is homeless on the street or someone that’s a senior citizen in the nursing home, or a school, or a church or a vet,” she laughed. “Can’t get into the correctional centers. I don’t know why – they don’t like the color red?”
The most important thing is that she is sharing her story so others realize that they are not alone.
“I also like people to see me just as a human,” she said.
Castore runs this campaign and another nonprofit called HopeScapes, which offers an eight-step process that helps people identify, confront and overcome personal obstacles through creating art. Running two nonprofits isn’t easy, but someone has to spread the kind word.
“If I didn’t have a penny, I’d still do this,” Castore said.
And we’re all better for her doing so.