Photos by Chris Casella

The A-Ok Lady

Inside the Tim Horton’s on the corner of Broad and High on a Thursday morning, an older man sits at the counter facing the windows. He’s a Midwestern archetype—green T-shirt, navy ball cap, faded jeans, a gray mustache covering a slight underbite. He speaks in a gentle drawl, telling an elderly woman next to him that he’s on his way to the senior center. She’s handing him tiny plastic smiley faces. She’s his foil—red rain boots, floral leggings, red utility-style belt, a bright blue shirt, a red cape, yellow fishnet gloves, a red mask atop her silvery hair, and a large metal smiley face on a gold chain around her neck.

She’s The A-OK Lady, the self-proclaimed but state-commended Goodwill Ambassador of Kindness for Ohio, and each of these garments is a symbol for something else, as is nearly everything she encounters throughout her day. The cape symbolizes an end to crime, violence, insensitivity, and intolerance. The mask represents the internal and external masks we all wear. Her shirt is always blue or yellow to signify spiritual connection. The pants are a call to be kind to the environment. Her boots, well, her boots keep her feet dry.

The costume attracts attention, and that’s the idea. It’s the reason the man she’s talking to approached her in the first place, and once the conversation started, she began her mission: spreading kindness, hope, and compassion. She wants people to connect more.

“I don’t think I like the word superhero, and here’s why—I think there are heroes in this world, but when you attach the word super, humility goes down the drain. So if I’m a hero, okay. If I’m a superhero, and I’m like that,” she poses with her hands on her hips and her elbows out like a superhero, “am I really going to be approached? Are you gonna wanna connect?”

In her past life, Susann Castore was not A-OK. She was a counselor—the director of guidance—in a rural town in Indiana, and one day she drove off the road. The police took her to a health center, the first of 39 hospitalizations over 15 years before she was correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

In one of those stints, she was so depressed that she was bedridden until a nurse told her she needed to get up to start feeling better. Susann obliged her and then came across another patient who was basically catatonic and suffering from schizophrenia. Drawing on her counseling background, she built a relationship with him—she was the only person he spoke to. Susann was eventually transferred to another center, but before she left he told her, “If it weren’t for your acts of kindness, I would not be on my way to wellness.” Her words catch in her throat and tears well up in her eyes as she tells the story.

“I found that acts of kindness were making me feel better and making someone else feel better,” she says. All told, she survived five suicide attempts and lost a 43-year marriage before she was diagnosed and prescribed the right medication.

But that struggle and recovery gave her a new life. She moved to Columbus in 2005, and in 2008 she visited 19 mental health centers as part of her nonprofit organization HopeScapes. She took patients though an eight-step process to help identify, confront, and overcome obstacles. They chose a theme and then created the HopeScapes, paintings on matte boards framed in wood.

In 2013, her revival led her to create a second identity, The A-OK Lady. She saw a problem in the world: people weren’t connecting enough. So she donned her outfit—all of which has been donated to her or customized for her by those willing to help—and hit the streets to spread her message.

“One of the reasons I go to the mental health centers and the churches and the senior centers is to motivate, to say, ‘Look, this is what I’ve been through. You can do it,’” she says. She’s combined her work as The A-OK Lady—dubbed The Kindness Exchange Campaign, for which she’s traveled 4,600 miles around the state—with HopeScapes, and she’s in the process of planning a new round of trips to mental health centers. This time she wants to feature the completed artwork in a gallery exhibition that would raise money to benefit the centers. She also wants to publish a book about her work as The A-OK Lady, Connecting with a Smile, which would detail her travels and the relationships she’s fostered in Ohio.

For now, she has conversations like the one she had this morning with the stranger at the counter—more than a dozen a day she estimates. She hands out her little yellow smiley faces two at a time, one for the person to keep and another for them to give away, so that the connections—and the kindness, hope, and compassion—continue to spread. Sometimes the smiley faces split down the middle and create two thinner versions, a sign that happiness can multiply.

“I’m not gonna reach every single person in the whole wide world, but reaching one is fine for that day, and maybe on that day, the person is feeling like that,” says The A-OK Lady, and she holds a large cardboard smiley face upside down to represent sadness.

Susann has had her share of sad days. Even Columbus holds some bad memories, and illness prevented her from traveling last year. Over the course of her struggle, her disorder strained her relationship with her sons, and one of them doesn’t speak to her anymore. She’s hoping this profile will help to reconnect them, or at least let them know she’s A-OK now.

But if not, that’s alright too. She’ll keep doing the work of The A-OK Lady, bringing smiles and kindness to as many people as she can reach, even when she’s not in her cape and mask. She’s still on her mission, even if she’s in jeans and a T-shirt.

“We’re all ambassadors,” she says. “We’re all people hopefully reaching out to other people.”

She glances out the window to see the crosswalk sign on the corner opposite the coffee shop, and inspiration strikes. The illuminated green stick figure on the sign means it’s okay to go across. The illuminated red hand means it’s okay to stop and think for a moment—what act of kindness, what A-OK could you do today?

We wrap up the interview, the bustle of the lunch hour escalating outside the windows and customers’ orders filling the inside of the store. But she’s not quite done. “Wow, you know, I know nothing about you,” she says. “We’ve connected. Tell me something.”

She finds meaning in everything, even our last moment together, and a chance to spread her message.