Casper & Jess: Friends for Life

Casper and his mentor, Jess, have a lot of things in common: they both love art, they are left-handed, and they both love anime. When these two talented people work together, anything is possible.

14-year-old Casper loves art and drawing but after being diagnosed with cancer, he lost that desire to draw all day long. However, his love for art came back to life when he met his new best friend, Jess.

Jess is a full-time tattoo artist at Kyklops Tattoo & Body Piercing in Pittsburgh’s South Side. In addition to their tattooing, they work on canvas, paper, and digital works. One of their main passions that connects them to Casper is their shared love for anime.

During their biweekly virtual meetings, Casper and Jess spend their time together presenting their artwork to one another. These assignments, predetermined at the previous meeting, allow Casper and Jess to show off what they have been working on since the last time they met. Their art is usually focused around anime and the characters that star in Casper’s favorite shows. When presenting their works, they are able to discuss their different drawing techniques, such as the way they made their characters’ eyes or shaped their hair and faces.

Something fun that the two friends have begun to do is split sheet or art trading. They each take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. They then draw on one half of their own paper and, when they are finished, Connecting Champions program staff Sloane, sends them the other’s paper. They take their friend’s artwork and complete it on the other side of the page so they are able to work on art together despite meeting over a computer screen.

For Casper’s 13th birthday, Jess sent him a drawing that they made of Casper’s favorite characters from one his favorite animes, My Hero Academia. Casper holds the piece very close to his heart and his admiration of Jess is evident to everyone he knows: “His eyes light up,” said Sloane. “You can see that he is himself and he’s relaxed and he’s with someone who really gets him and what he loves and what he’s passionate about!”

One of Sloane’s favorite parts of their friendship is Jess’s ability to make Casper laugh. They are always the last on their video calls, logging in at 9:33 for a 9:30 call, always doing something crazy as their entrance. Whether they be dressed as an anime character or entering the frame from a weird angle, Jess always keeps Casper laughing.

Casper and Jess’s first time meeting in-person was very exciting. “When Casper first found out that he was actually going to come to Pittsburgh and meet Jess, he was jumping all over the place, literally, which is a hard thing for him to do since he’s even having trouble walking due to his chemotherapy,” said Casper’s grandmother. “We come to Jess’s shop and Jess meets us at the door. They hug each other and Casper semi-starts crying and he’s like ‘I’m so happy to meet you! I’m so happy to meet you!’ He was totally, totally thrilled that he was able to meet Jess. He was very, very excited to meet this person that brought art back into his life.”

Their friendship has continued to grow and evolve as Casper has started high school. “I think now there’s this mutual respect where they both know how much they mean to each other,” said Skylar, the West Virginia Program Coordinator of Connecting Champions. “They both understand how amazing they both are. I think it’s just this excitement to be together and to be near each other and to be able to share things with each other.” 

Jess has noticed how much they have seen Casper grow over the course of their friendship, astonished by the young man he is becoming. “Casper is truly no ordinary human being,” said Jess. “From the first meeting, he was open and caring, listening and digesting as if nothing ailed him. Since his remission and starting school, I have only seen those characteristics flourish and develop new modes of curiosity.”

While their conversations used to be heavily influenced by their art projects, their recent meetings have seen them get more comfortable in discussing important topics about the world. “Even in his queerness, Casper has matured and continuously updated his own views as his world opens up in front of him,” said Jess. “It is one of the most admirable things about him: his willingness to be wrong and correct himself. He learned that failure isn’t real but trying every day is a path that does not end.”

Skylar has noted his continuous growth from Casper, as well. “Jess is so wise in their words and has this way of supporting Casper in a way that I don’t think a lot of people do,” said Skylar. “I think Jess is a very unique person and has a way about them that is just so affirming and so caring that it allows Casper to just be himself and talk about whatever. There’s really no filter in our meetings.”

When asked what this friendship means to them, Jess was quick to admire his friend. “[Our friendship is] unbounded trust and impenetrable joy,” said Jess. “We meet every week and share our lives with each other: struggles, laughs, and everything in between with no judgment. What first was an exploration of artistic engagement has slowly evolved into a friendship of pursuing life through the lens of art.”

Jess came to Casper’s aid when he needed them most, invigorating an urge to draw that had gone dormant since his cancer diagnosis. Since then, their friendship has grown into a beautiful realm of teaching, honesty, and love. When asked what kind of person they see when looking at Casper, Jess had to hold back tears. “So far in our friendship, every time I think I have an answer or a box to put him in, he breaks free of it,” said Jess. “His queerness, a true inspiration to me as a non-binary human, allows him to see outside the norms of our society. Then his cancer experience has taught him gratitude and presence where nothing goes for granted…I just see kindness. I see love. I see freedom and youth and confusion…and a whole metric ton of JOY!”

Activity Kits

National Geographic Science Magic Kit

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Future Scientist

Get a science experiment kit to explore with his mentor!

​Help 9-year-old Myla

Future Artist

Get art supplies to create with her mentor!

Help 23-year-old Erik

Future Coffee Barista

Get coffee supplies to learn how to create specialty drinks with his mentor!

The pandemic showed many people what social isolation is really like. It also showed there are many other great ways to connect. That’s why we launched our activity kits. These mailed out packages provide fun activities for our mentors and kids/young adults to do together — virtually.

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