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Jenny Costello Fortner: Paying it Forward in the Community

Jenny Costello Fortner: Paying it Forward in the Community

Former women’s basketball student-athlete Jenny Costello Fortner relished her time at University of Chicago and is spending her life giving back to the community in the city in which she grew up and attended college. One of her first volunteering opportunities as an undergraduate was with Special Olympics and she now serves as the Chair of the Board of Special Olympics Illinois and is co-chairing the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary Celebration July 15-22, 2018.

Basketball and Choosing Chicago

She began playing basketball in the second grade, but making the fifth grade school team turned out to be one of the most significant moments in her career. “I was blessed to have an amazing coach in Mark DeHertogh,” she said. “He was a John Wooden disciple and very skilled at teaching the fundamentals of the game. I remember running the high post UCLA offense in fifth grade and learning about Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. I quickly fell in love with the sport.”

In seventh grade, she tried out for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) travel team and began thinking about playing basketball in college. Her high school team in Chicago, Mother McAuley, won the state title in her freshman season and several of that team’s seniors went on to play collegiately.

 “Honestly my dream was to play Division I basketball and earn a scholarship,” she recalled. “As the oldest of four children, I thought this was the best way to help my family. I had many Division I colleges interested in my early years of high school, but as senior year came around, the few scholarships seemed to be going to others instead of me.”

She applied to a number of high quality academic institutions in Division I and Division III, but realized if she was going to play basketball in college, she wanted to be a meaningful contributor. She was contacted by two UAA coaches, including Sue Zawacki of Chicago. “I was intrigued by the UAA, the great academic reputations of the schools, and the opportunity to travel across the country to play the game I loved so much.” 

"I had very pointed conversations with her about her interests and what kind of school would be a good fit for her," Zawacki said. "The school sold itself. I believed, from getting to know her and her family, that she would flourish at Chicago. She was clear who she was and what she wanted to do going forward."

Two key factors helped Costello Fortner make her decision  a great visit to campus and financial aid. “On my overnight visit, it was an immediate fit for me.  For one of the first times in my life, I truly felt like I belonged. The women on the team who hosted me (and who are still my good friends today) welcomed me with open arms. I saw how they studied hard and played hard.” 

Although she grew up in suburban Chicago just 45 minutes from campus, Costello Fortner recounted that the urban campus was far different from where she grew up. “The diversity in the student body and the surrounding community was something I was looking for and, to this day, appreciate in more ways than I could ever express.” She also recognized that without a strong financial package, she would not have been able to attend the university. “I am so grateful and thankful for those who helped fund scholarships to help me and other students like me. I absolutely feel the need to ‘pay it forward’ to other students today.”

Costello Fortner averaged 11.0 points per game in her career with the Maroons, and is ranked among the top-10 all-time in steals (130), career points (1,111), career field goals (388), and career free throws made (260). She earned All-Association honorable mention honors in her first two seasons before being named to the second team in 1996-97 and garnering first team honors in 1997-98.  The UAA champions in her final two seasons (NYU in 1996-97 and Washington University in 1997-98) went on to win the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship titles.

Costello during her playing days at UC

In spite of her individual success, Costello Fortner was focused on the team’s success. “Earning All-UAA honors was truly an honor and a privilege. The UAA was, and is, such a special conference, and I have so much respect for all of those student-athletes, coaches, and athletic trainers who have been a part of it for the past 30 years,” she remarked. “But for me, it was never about the individual accolades, it was always about the team. I will never forget the moment we received the call in my freshman year that we made the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. I literally started jumping up and down on my bed in the dorm room. I could not contain my excitement for our team achieving the goal we had set at the beginning of the season.”

"Jenny was the quintessential team player," Zawacki remarked. "She was, and still is, modest about taking credit for success. She has always given credit to those around her."

Memories On and Off the Court

There were numerous memorable moments for Costello Fortner during her time at Chicago, including meeting her now husband. “I met my future husband (P. Jay Fortner) outside the Henry Crown Field House,” she remembered. “As a member of the football team, he was good friends with my brother Tom (both her brothers played football and baseball at UC). I never would have imagined then that six years later, P. Jay would be down on one knee in front of the field house proposing to me.”

Costello Fortner netted her 1,000th career point at University of Rochester, the city in which P. Jay’s parents lived at the time. Although she had just met her future husband, she later discovered his parents were at that game. “It still means so much to me that my parents and my in-laws were there to be a part of it.” 

Another of her favorite moments was having the opportunity to spend the day walking Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy recipient, around campus the day he was receiving an award. “He was such a gracious man and told so many stories about the history of the university and Hyde Park. I still cherish those stories,” Costello Fortner stated.

One year, she was part of the team that put together the school’s first “Midnight Madness” that included UC President Hugo Sonnenschein supporting the team by rebounding that night.

“As I think about my favorite memories, it was not so much one specific memory that makes the difference. What I look back on most fondly are the everyday moments of practicing in the gym, being with my teammates on trips to New York and Boston for the first time in my life, having my family being able to attend so many of my games, and watching my brother compete in baseball and football,” she recounted.

Special Olympics and Volunteering

Each year, the university's Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) sponsored a Special Olympics team, providing them with uniforms and volunteering at track and field meets. “The first time I volunteered with Special Olympics, it touched me in such a profound way,” she said. “I cannot put into words how much that moment meant to me. I immediately fell in love with volunteering, with Special Olympics, and the hope, bravery, and inspiration the athletes provided. I promised myself that whatever I did later in life, I would find a way to volunteer.”

Costello began volunteering with Special Olympics as a UC student-athlete

That is a promise she kept. In addition to being the current Chair of the Board of Special Olympics Illinois, Costello Fortner has served on the board for the past 13 years. She also has identical twin nephews who are Special Olympics athletes. “I cannot say enough good things about this organization and I was so thrilled to learn that Special Olympics is the Division III Charity of Choice,” she commented. “I am so thankful that so many people in the UAA are incredibly supportive of the athletes we serve.” 

Her volunteering while in college recently came full circle when the current president of the WAA invited Costello Fortner to a women’s basketball game where they were raising funds to support Special Olympics. The night included her best friends and fellow teammates from her college days as well as Zawacki, and the past and current WAA directors. “As I reflect on that moment, I think it says so much about how influential my time as a student-athlete at University of Chicago has been in my life as 25-plus years later, I am still connected to the amazing friends, teammates, coaches, and volunteers who I know will be a part of my life forever.” 

"To sum up Jenny, she is all about giving back," Zawacki commented. "She was that way throughout her college career, giving back to the community."

Costello at recent UC basketball game that raised funds for Special Olympics

Costello Fortner serves on the Board and Investment Committee of the Big Shoulders Fund that serves and provides scholarships to students in inner city Catholic schools. She is also a Visionary Council Member for “All Are Welcome,” working to bring resources and training to Catholic schools to serve all children with different learning styles.

“Through my family upbringing, my faith, and my Catholic education in grade school and Mother McAuley, it was always embedded in me to work hard at developing the talents that have been God-given and to use them to serve others,” she said. “The University of Chicago was such a wonderful place to grow and develop in that manner. I loved the many opportunities I became exposed to through the vast number of student organizations that gave back to the community.”

P. Jay, who graduated in 2000, recently felt called to make a career change from Finance to Education. He is now teaching AP (Advanced Placement) Economics and is the Head Sophomore Football Coach at Marist High School in Chicago. “P. Jay and I want to instill in our three kids the same values of giving back and serving the community that were instilled in us at an early age,” she remarked. “”He models much of his teaching from his favorite classes at UC. I could not be more proud of him.”

Costello Fortner and Chicago continue to give to one another. “The University of Chicago hospital saved my dad’s life several years ago when he had open heart surgery there,” she recalled. “I genuinely love the school and most importantly, the people who make up the institution. I am so grateful for all that UC has done for me and my family. I believe someone was there to help me find and afford the University of Chicago, and P. Jay and I believe it is now our job to help other students try to achieve their dreams in the same manner.”

Goldman Sachs and Mentoring

She brought the lessons she learned growing up in Chicago and at the university into the work world at Goldman, Sachs & Co., where she has worked since 1998. “Once I entered the business world, I missed the connectivity and support network that I had on the basketball team all of those years,” she stated. “When I was an undergrad, a group of successful women traders from Goldman Sachs came to UC and Northwestern to speak about their careers to junior and senior women students. That interaction left such an important impression on me.”

In her second year at the firm, Costello Fortner helped plan a similar event and realized that the women who spoke to the undergrads got as much out of the conversation as the students did. “It was at that moment that it all became crystal clear to me,” she recalled. “We needed to establish a women’s network regionally. I went to see the head of our Chicago office at the time, who was also a UC alum, and asked permission to get it started. He was extremely supportive. Now, almost 18 years later, the network is thriving and has grown into a full diversity network.” Costello Fortner just completed her term serving as co-head of the Goldman Sachs Chicago Diversity Network. 

“Mentoring women and educating women in the areas of finance, business, and leadership is a passion that I enjoy immensely and is another way to honor the incredible mentors that I have had in my life, both women and men.” She is also co-head of a new Women’s Advisors Conference at the firm and helped initiate a Woman Advisors Leadership Program. “The firm believes in diversity and is always trying to find ways to improve it. It is very supportive and encourages community service.”

Whether it is her work with Special Olympics or mentoring programs, Costello Fortner credits her time as an undergraduate with paving the way for her to give back to others. “I truly cannot say enough positive things about the University of Chicago, my experience of being a student-athlete in the UAA, and the life lessons I have taken with me,” she said. “I have used those lessons countless times at work, at home, and in my non-profit work. I pray that my children will find a school and a passion that can fulfill them as much as UC has fulfilled me and continues to shape my life.”

"Jenny is just a rock solid person," Zawacki said. "You won't find a lot of people like Jenny."