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Community-service champs: Jack and Doris Costello
If there’s any downside in spending a few minutes talking with Jack and Doris Costello, this year’s recipients of the Siddha Yoga Dahm Associates (SYDA) Foundation’s community service award, it’s that you’ll likely feel a bit lazy by the end of the conversation.
The Costellos have lived in Sullivan County for the past 24 years. They’ve filled that time joining, and often leading, numerous community-service initiatives.
Lisa Fane, executive producer of the award, said that the Costellos’ work throughout the county exemplifies the type of service that the SYDA Foundation tries to highlight through this award.
“It really is about enduring and outstanding service, service that really stands out and has been done over a long period of time,” Fane said.
The community service award was initiated in 1986 when SYDA’s founder, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, wanted to acknowledge and inspire a “vibrant spirit of community service” in Sullivan County, as foundation spokesperson Asa Siegel describes it. Each year, recipients are nominated and ultimately chosen by a committee made up of past award-winners and other community-service leaders.
This year’s winners were not always area residents. Before moving to Sullivan County full-time, Jack and Doris were Long Islanders who fell in love with the Upper Delaware region during ice-fishing trips.
“We’re transplants, that’s what everybody tells us,” Jack said with a laugh. “We fell in love with the country.”
In 2005, Jack became president of a Sullivan Renaissance group called Jeffersonville Enhance Main Street (JEMS). The group leads beautification efforts throughout Jeffersonville.
“I immediately realized that I was in over my head,” Jack said, which sparked his efforts recruiting young people from the Sullivan West School District and local churches to volunteer their time and energy for the betterment of their communities.
Through the guidance of Barbara Hahn, whom Jack calls his mentor, the Costellos helped push JEMS’ mission of beautification beyond Main Street and throughout Jeffersonville.
One of Doris’ fonder experiences with JEMS has been teaching young children about gardening through flower-planting projects on Main Street.
“I loved helping them… and they really loved doing it,” Doris said.
Siegel said that beyond the projects Jack and Doris have been a part of throughout the years, their integrated approach of involving young people in community service makes them worthy candidates for the SYDA award.
“Their work with JEMS is not only that they’re so focused on the beautification of public spaces and a sense of community pride—they incorporate young people consistently in their efforts. So there’s this beautification, plus there’s this environmental awareness and sense of empowerment in their work, where they’re getting young people involved and having them take a sense of ownership in their community,” he said.
In 2007, after realizing that JEMS was going to need some extra fundraising, the Costellos became the driving force behind a beloved annual fundraiser, a rubber duck race down Callicoon Creek. Out of the more than 1,000 brightly colored ducks that typically “enter the race,” Jack said the crowd favorite is always the “pokey duck” that comes in last place.
Siegel said that projects like the duck race exemplify the Costellos’ cohesive philosophy about community service: the experience of doing good for the community is a reward in itself.
“It shows that it’s more than just about raising the money—the experience in of itself… is part of what they do for the community. It’s the experience as well as the result,” he said.
A through line in the Costellos’ various community-service projects is the engagement of Sullivan youth. Sadly, this has given them a glimpse into the effect that drugs have had on many people’s lives in Sullivan County. Seeing young people struggle with drugs and alcohol inspired Jack and Doris’s work with the Sullivan West Joint Task Force, which provides help to those with substance abuse disorders.
“All those fifth graders who planted flowers along Main Street, some of those youngsters are no longer with us,” Jack said. “The addiction problem across the U.S. has hit us hard personally, I feel it. I think about yellow ducks and pink ducks, and planting flowers, knowing I lost some of those youngsters.”
Most recently, Jack has worked on a Veterans Day memorial project with a Vietnam veteran. They also have gone to schools to have conversations with the students about war, “not to glamourize war,” Jack said, but to answer the difficult questions that the students may have about it.
“They want to make sure young people have the best shot at life. I feel like they’re real passionate gardeners,” Fane said, noting that their vim for fostering growth extends well beyond the plants in their garden. “They treat young people like that too, they really are intent on seeing them grow and grow and ensure that they have really vibrant lives.”
Despite all the work they have done for the past 24 years, the Costellos greeted the news about their award with pure surprise.
“After we found out, I went online and looked at the previous winners, and I told Doris, ‘I think we’re in the wrong category,” Jack said. “We race ducks and plant flowers, there’s three judges on this list.”
Doris was equally shocked.
“When [Fane] told me, my mouth was open,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I felt so good about it all really.”