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Lean On Me Project carved, personalized canes offer steady support

Mary Pickels
| Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, 8:55 p.m.

The row of custom carved canes propped against a wall in Jen Costello's Penn Township home offer an eye-catching, fun vibe, along with their function.

Some light up. One is shaped like a No. 2 school pencil. Another is covered with carved emoji faces. Others feature aliens, King Kong, or military motifs.

That vibe is purposeful, says their creator, and the canes are meant to serve both as a conversation piece and a boost to their users' self-esteem.

Costello, 48, was diagnosed at the age of four with Wilms Tumor cancer. She survived, but says the massive amounts of chemotherapy and radiation she received left her with weakened back muscles, nerve damage in her legs and a curvature of her spine.

In 2014, she began using leg braces and a medical cane.

"It made me feel bad inside," she says.

The former Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic counselor became depressed.

So Costello, who says she has no carving or painting training, decided to make her own cane.

She uses recycled wood, sandpaper, craft paint and polyurethane.

"I'm hyper. I always feel like I need projects," she says.

In a sun room in the rear of the home she shares with her wife, Deb Costello, and mother, Mary Ann Novak, she works on decorative canes, typically completing one a month, and gives them away.

"I made the first cane with the word 'strength' carved into it. I said 'Cool,' and Deb said, 'Look at all the Band-Aids,'" she recalls.

Her mother bought her some gloves and an upgraded carving knife and she went back to work.

She estimates she's given away more than two dozen canes and walking sticks so far.

Her first cane got a lot of attention.

"When you have something different, people tend to look away from your disability and look at your cane," she says.

Soon, people began asking for their own personalized canes.

"My doctor saw the fish tank cane (in which clay fish float in the cane's clear center) and said, 'You stepped up your game on that one, didn't you?'" she says.

She credits artist Mary Briggs of North Huntingdon for helping her with that and other creative cane endeavors.

Briggs plans to help with a blog detailing the canes and their recipients.

"She's a visionary," Briggs says of Costello's work.

Costello recently founded the "Lean on Me Project," and is seeking other artists to help carve canes to donate to those in need.

Richard Naugle, 62, of Conemaugh Township in Somerset County, recently joined her effort.

Retired after being disabled, he uses a cane and began using natural wood to carve more canes, which he both sells and donates through his business, Dick's Wood Works.

The two heard about each other's work, met and clicked, Naugle says.

"Who wants to give their work away? Jen," he says.

"Richard reached out to me and said, 'I want to do this.' We are yin and yang," Costello says.

When someone requests a cane, Costello typically asks for three ideas.

"Then I choose what's feasible and surprise them with the finished product," she says.

The two posted a recent cane drive on social media and together delivered 10 canes in one day.

"The feeling is unreal. You see a person's face light up, their eyes brighten," Naugle says.

Their differences in design style allow them to work well together, they say. Some recipients prefer Costello's more whimsical or personalized canes, while others like the look of Naugle's more realistic walking sticks.

They divvy up requests from a growing waiting list, Costello says, leading the two to recently begin seeking out more artists/carvers to consider donating canes.

British cane artist Chris Parry was the first international donor, Costello says.

She's entered some of her canes in regional art shows and exhibits, winning awards for some.

Her greatest reward, she says, comes from seeing the "look of joy" on recipients' faces.

"Every time someone is given a cane, their self-worth increases," Costello says.

To learn more, volunteer, or request a cane, visit http://jencostellocanes.webstarts.com/lean_on_me_project.html

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

Jen Costello usually works every evening with her dog by her side.
Kyle Hodges
Jen Costello usually works every evening with her dog by her side.
An almost-finished cane sits next to one of Jen's favorite walking canes in her sunroom in Penn Township.
Kyle Hodges
An almost-finished cane sits next to one of Jen's favorite walking canes in her sunroom in Penn Township.
A selection of Jen Costello's canes sits in her living room in Penn Township.
Kyle Hodges
A selection of Jen Costello's canes sits in her living room in Penn Township.
Jen Costello is a founder of the Lean on Me Project.
Kyle Hodges
Jen Costello is a founder of the Lean on Me Project.
Richard Naugle is a contributing artist to the Lean on Me project.
Kyle Hodges
Richard Naugle is a contributing artist to the Lean on Me project.
A freshly carved, but not stained, cane by Richard Naugle sits next to a finished one.
Kyle Hodges
A freshly carved, but not stained, cane by Richard Naugle sits next to a finished one.
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