There is an eminently childlike quality about Susann Castore.
At 70, we found “The A-OK Lady,” as she calls herself, barely five-foot frame decked out Friday in a cape, floral pants, bright red galoshes, and sporting a smiley face medallion, belt pouch, and stuffed smiley pillow.
Castore made a stop in Oberlin on a tour of Ohio, passing through on her way from Mount Gilead to Toledo.
Her goal is to preach compassion and acceptance one town at a time. Castore calls herself “a modern day Pied Piper” and “a spiritual creature” trying to salve emotional wounds at hospitals, homeless shelters, and schools.
“We’re a society that’s a bit disconnected. We’re looking for our way,” she said. “We’re trying violence. We’re trying non-inclusion… some of us have grown up with disregard, disrespect. How do we find our way back?”
It is clear after just a few moments talking with Castore that she has her own deep scars.
A stutter through her teen years opened doors to sexual abuse, she said. Her mother was physically abusive. Decades later, she was diagnosed with bipolarism and multiple personality disorder.
After a long career in counseling — she is still state-licensed — Castore decided to begin The Kindness Exchange, a non-profit effort to encourage personal connections and talk about mental health issues in Ohio.
More good can be spread by traveling in costume than by talking to clients in a stuffy office, she said.
We watched as Castore padded up confidently to several people at the Oberlin Inn to press “A-OK” cards into their hands. It’s an act she’s performed thousands of times on her 4,600-mile journey.
It can be difficult to accept kindness from a stranger, but for those she approaches, smiles can bloom quickly. Those to whom she offered A-OKs Friday were taken off-guard and were unsure how to react, warming gradually if begrudgingly.
About 90 percent of those Castore approaches react positively, though some do throw up their emotional shields and rebuff her.
She found a mix while making rounds about town, stopping at coffee shops and roaming the Oberlin College grounds.
What does she get out of it?
“The connection. I get you. You get me. People take their earphones out and it’s suddenly real. We break down barriers and we connect,” Castore said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Jason Hawk | Oberlin News-Tribune Susann Castore is “The A-OK Lady,” traveling the state to share smiles wherever people may need a pick-me-up.