Paused train with migrants standing on top

The Spontaneous Solidarity of Migration

Thank you to Clowns Without Borders USA board president David Rosenthal, and board member Tim Cunningham for their contributions to this blog!

At this moment, CWB – USA artists are on tour in Mexico, traveling north with a caravan of migrants. Within the U.S. media, this caravan, and others like it, is met with a rhetoric of fear and xenophobia. Yet, as CWB clowns travel with migrants who seek asylum, safety and peace, they witness beauty and share joy. Migrants everywhere experience danger, violence and opportunists, and this is amplified in situations of resource scarcity. But when CWB artists put on their red nose and open their heart, they tend to encounter the best in others.

Clowns and Caravans

Historically, caravans were nomadic communities of traders or pilgrims, who crossed large swaths of land, mostly in North African desserts and parts of Asia. The word evoked a sense of community, collectivity and planned migration from one place to the next. Caravans were also traveling circuses. Groups of artists arrived to share a few days of laughter with remote communities, and then moved on to the next town. The arrival of clowns and performers was one of joy—it brought eager anticipation. This tradition continues today. Ringing Brother’s and Barnum and Baileys’ circus travelled by train (actually, two) from 1907 – 2015.

mural of migrant man

It’s fitting that CWB clowns travel with the migrant caravan—a new kind of caravan that has shifted in purpose to reflect recent history. Global stability is threatened by war, poverty and climate change, so asylum seekers, refugees and migrants form caravans. Instead of waiting for the traveling circus to come, or deciding to move when the time is right, migrants are forced to pick up and find a new, hopefully better, home. While our clowns perform for communities in protracted displacement, they also walk along streets, trails and dried river banks to be with migrant communities. Both the clowns and the migrants bring only what they can carry. And when the clowns stop to perform, a spontaneous group forms around them, sharing laughter and joy.

Clowns pose on grassy train tracks

People in Search of Peace

In the U.S. media, the migrant caravan is described as dangerous. In the experience of CWB clowns, that’s simply not true. The migrant caravan, like caravans throughout time, is a group of people joining together in search of a better life. Derrick Gilday, an artist currently on tour in Mexico, writes about a beautiful moment in which the clowns performed for a migrant community, and then saw the same people a few days later, further north. “We saw people from all three locations that we had performed at, along the way, and we began sharing blessings, smiles and memories as if we had known each other for many years. The energy was incredibly intense, beautiful and life-changing.” When people gather for a CWB – USA performance, relative strangers come together, playing, singing, and dancing. Shouldn’t everyone have that opportunity?

Clowns make heart hands with teen students

Puerto Rico’s Power Grid Is Still Unstable

June 1st marked the official beginning of Puerto Rico’s hurricane season. This is an annual cycle on the calendar. However, many of many of our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are still reeling from last year’s hurricane season.  They have gone 10 months without power.

The long term damage from Hurricane Maria is mind-boggling. Approximately 1,000 homes remain without power on the island, while Puerto Rico’s electric utility company, PREPA, struggles to find a CEO. In the ongoing battle over electric power administration on the island, Governor Ricardo Rossello recently signed a bill to privatize power generation but retain government control over its distribution. The infighting and instability is felt by the thousands of people who still don’t have reliable power.

The team hugs in Puerto Rico

In February, CWB – USA performed for many of these communities. Their rebuilding process was in limbo thanks to the politics of getting the lights back on. Thousands of Puerto Ricans who emigrated to the mainland U.S. say that they may never return. The lack of economic opportunities on the island, coupled with the slow infrastructure recovery, have forced people to permanently uproot their lives.

CWB – USA was founded to bring levity and laughter to children in international crisis zones. By our own definitions, touring to Puerto Rico in February was a domestic project in response to a natural disaster and immediate crisis. However, with the continued lack of power, the situation is morphing into one of protracted internal displacement and emigration. Those who remained on the island in the aftermath of the Hurricane Maria face ongoing trauma and potential economic ruin. The displacement is ongoing, long after the hurricane passes. But now, with a new season looming, the impact of a storm has the potential to be even worse.

While the mission of CWB – USA may be simple, we embrace the complexity of the crises faced by our community partners. Even now, as we plan a return tour to Puerto Rico, to continue the healing process from Maria, we know that the island may be impacted by another hurricane. CWB – USA is proud to share laughter with people around the world, and at home. We are inspired by the resilience of the Puerto Rican people, as they face the daunting task of rebuilding.

A Confluence of Clowns

What do you get when clown-delegates representing fifteen countries meet in a medieval, Catalan village at an event modeled after the United Nations? Why, the Seventh Annual General Assembly of Clowns Without Borders International (CWBI), of course! For four rowdy, music-filled days, we met around a large conference table to discuss the organization’s future and how to respond to emerging and protracted displacement. CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer recently returned from this year’s assembly, to report back on what she learned. 

What is Clowns Without Borders International?

There are fifteen chapters of Clowns Without Borders. While each operates independently in their own countries, they also share a vision and common goal under the umbrella of Clowns Without Borders International. Each chapter has a representative on the CWBI board, and once a year the representatives come together for an annual meeting. This year’s meeting was held in Caldes de Montbuis, a town in Catalonia, Spain. It was a joyous event, with thirty clowns (and clown administrators) coming together to discuss the organization’s future. 

Clowns sit at circular tables to discuss CWBI

A Story From Tortell:

The meeting opened with a story from Tortell Poltrona, the founder of Payasos Sin Fronteras:

“Let us remember that our work was the idea of children. It was children in refugee camps in Croatia who wrote to their pen-pals in Spain to say, we miss laughter. It was children in Spain who came up to me and said, ‘You should go to the camps.’ And so I did. Clowns Without Borders exists because we listened to the children.”


Protracted Displacement

With this frame, we started to discuss the changing landscape of displacement, and how CWBI—and each of its member chapters—can meet the current needs of displaced people. All chapters share two values: We only go where invited, and we always work in partnership with a local organizer. One of our longest group conversations was about how to build on this framework to increase the diversity of each performing team, CWB chapter, and CWBI, overall. CWB – USA prioritizes partnerships with local artists as a way to increase the impact of our work. 

In addition to setting long-term policies, the General Assembly is an essential opportunity to meet the leadership of other Clowns Without Borders chapters. All of our project collaborations are a result of forging these personal relationships. Partnering with other chapters (such as on our recent tours to Mexico, St. Maarten, and South Sudan), is an invaluable way to increase our impact and learn from each other. 

Want to know more about Clowns Without Borders International? Visit CWBI’s Website.

Erin laughs while riding a bike with an audience member

Sole/Soul Purpose

Welcome to an ongoing blog series of contributions by CWB – USA’s wonderful board members!

Erin Leigh Crites, Vice President of Clowns Without Borders USA, is an international theatre artist, educator, and purveyor of make believe. In the past ten years, Erin has traveled extensively to explore the global community and create bonds through theatrical play. She splits her time between Los Angeles and Idyllwild as an ensemble member of Fiasco! Physical Theatre and a full-time instructor in the theatre department at the international boarding school, Idyllwild Arts Academy. She joined Clowns Without Borders in 2010 after receiving her MFA in physically-based ensemble theatre from Dell’Arte International.

When I was a child, people frequently told me I was too sensitive. Too shy. Too worried. I had a hard time relating to other kids. I was always asking questions that nobody cared about, taking an interest in global things, rather than local. I even developed insomnia by age 11, because I was worried about world conflict: Israel and Palestine; Northern Ireland; India and Pakistan. These issues of the 90s kept me up at night. And I cried. A lot. I cried because I felt helpless. I was too small. The problems and people were far away, but I felt them so intimately. I felt like my heart was constantly squeezed by a world unable to listen to its own need.

I couldn’t articulate that at 11 years old. I was just a kid with no power, surrounded by kids who thought I was weird for caring. I felt like that a lot. Weird for caring. I still do. Watching people interact, I would think, “Aren’t there bigger things to worry about?” Or, “I don’t think you’re even listening to each other.” I didn’t know what all of that meant, or how it would manifest in my sense of purpose, until after I pursued physical theater at Dell’Arte International.

I had never taken a dance class or moved my body in expressive or dynamic ways, other than through sports, until I went to Dell’Arte at 23 years old. During my audition, I was told to “just sit and speak,” because I was trying so hard, and failing, to be physical. When I just sat and delivered my autobiographical piece, I connected. It was because I was talking about the need to connect with others. I was on fire about the power of theatrical expression to unite people through imaginative play, through the creation of an interpersonal feedback loop. And I realized that if there can only be one lesson, it’s listening. I need that loop to look deeper into myself. I need to connect. And listening allows me to connect to others and to myself.

Erin smiles before being pied in the face by her students

Flash forward through three years of rigorous physical theatre training, including clowning, and I met Adrian. Adrian Mejia was a graduate of Dell’Arte and a performer for CWB. We had one of those beautifully wandering late night conversations that ended with him telling me, “You know, listening to everything you’ve said, I really think you should go on a Clowns Without Borders tour.” I didn’t know anything about the organization, but I lit up inside as he continued to describe the work.

I’d like to take a moment to honor Adrian’s memory. He was a bright light in this world and the catalyst for my work with CWB. When I heard of his passing, a fire was stoked in my innermost being.

I emailed Clowns Without Borders again. I had already submitted my application, but now there was urgency. During a phone call with Dianna Hahn (who I believe was program director at the time) I was asked if I had any preferences about where I’d like to travel. “Nope,” I said, “just the next available position. I just need to go.” The conversation ended with her telling me that all of the trips in the near future had been filled, but that she would keep me on CWB’s radar. This felt like an important step, and it was.

In November, Diana called and said, “Someone dropped out of the next trip to Haiti and it leaves in two weeks.”

“I’m in,” I replied.

My first CWB trip to Haiti, in 2010, changed everything. I found a deep resonance, an echo of my childhood self. That lonely, only child, who wanted to connect with the world, stepped into the lives of the people she had worried about in the middle of the night. I was no longer helpless. I no longer felt too small or that the problems were too far away. In fact, the problems themselves dissolved in favor of connection with the very people who remained resilient against them. Connecting to an individual magically lifted the crushing weight of trying to “solve” the global problems squeezing my childhood heart. That’s how connection through laughter operates.

The word levity comes from the Latin levitas which translates to “lightness.” If I can connect with one person at a time, through laughter, we all get lighter. And it doesn’t matter how short the interaction is or how small my contribution seems, compared to the grand scheme of the universe. When the nose is on, I am on, and my soul/sole purpose is to connect.

Gabi and girls watch Faeble in Mexico

Can Clowning Cure Burnout and PTSD?

Welcome to a new blog series, with contributions by CWB – USA’s wonderful board members!

Board member Tim Cunningham is a graduate of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre (’01) and has performed with CWB in 11 countries outside of the United States. Within the borders of the US, Cunningham has performed, lectured and facilitated workshops about CWB’s mission and work at universities and high schools. He received his doctoral degree from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Board president David Rosenthal is currently an Associate Professor and the Director of Management Programs in Health Policy and Management in the Mailman School of Public Health and a behavioral faculty member in the Center for Family and Community Medicine, Columbia University.

If you read anything about hospital care nowadays, specifically about physicians and nurses, you’re likely to read about B.O. 

No, not body odor, but burnout! It’s a major issue, and unlike body odor it can be contagious. If you want to read some journal articles, search for names like “Dyrbye, Shanafelt and West.” (Here’s a good one.) Burnout is nothing new and as with many things, interest in its effect ebbs and flows. It was popularized in the 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger, and in the early 1980s, when Christina Maslach helped define our current understanding of burnout. Now, we find ourselves talking about the same thing as though it’s a new crisis. 

Burnout also occurs in the military and can be related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact, the New York Times Magazine recently published a haunting but important read about rates of burnout among some of our nation’s drone pilots. The story highlights people who work out of remote offices, limiting their interpersonal connections.  

If you want to do a deep dive into medical research, nursing research, and military research, you’ll find lots of papers about the prevalence of burnout and PTSD. You’ll find far less conversation about what we can do about it, and how it can be treated. Honestly, we social scientists are pretty good at measuring the existence of something, but it’s more difficult to study interventions and create evidence-based strategies.

So what does all of this have to do with clowns? We’ll tell you.

Clowns Without Borders just might offer a unique tool to fight burnout and make PTSD a little less painful. It’s neither costumes, nor magic tricks. It’s not our acrobatic routines or the famous “newspaper bit.” Nope. It might actually have little to do with us and more with how clowning brings people together.  

Lots of papers (including one that we published) scramble to understand how we can treat burnout or PTSD. One common thread is that people with a sense of camaraderie fare better when it comes to these two phenomena. Nurses who treated patients together during the Ebola outbreak, physicians who worked in a refugee setting in Greece, soldiers who fought with people they know and trust, all report a stronger ability to deal with life’s stressors. Drone pilots, on the contrary, find themselves working alone, thus losing all sense of camaraderie. That loss can rip people apart, emotionally, when they go through traumatizing experiences. Many people struggle with PTSD once they’re no longer surrounded by a team with similar experiences. The power of relationships and social support, as a healing and coping tool, cannot be minimized.

Clowns work with MSF caregivers in Haiti

In fact, CWB has a special workshop called Find Your Funny. This workshop is specifically designed for care providers, educators and humanitarian aid workers—anyone whose job consists of a lot of emotional labor. In December, 2017, CWB – USA led just such a workshop for Médecins Sans Frontières-France (MSF-France) healthcare providers in Haiti. Aid workers and health care providers are impacted by Secondary Trauma Exposure, which can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout. CWB’s “Find Your Funny” workshops address how these professionals can use laughter to alleviate the stress of their jobs and have a compassionate response. The project objective is not only to bring levity to patients, but also share tools with care-providers so that they too can spark moments of joy for themselves, each other, and their patients. (You can read more about the clowns’ experiences teaching the workshop, here.)

During CWB tours, which most frequently focus on the needs of a community in crisis, these relationships are highlighted and celebrated. CWB clowns set a stage, wherever that stage needs to be, and they welcome anyone who can squeeze into the audience space. Sometimes our shows are for 10 people, sometimes they’re for 1,000. When CWB clowns set a stage, people gather. People who have been ripped apart by governments, by war, by poverty and by disease, sit, stand, and play with us. People who have been forced to migrate from their homes or forced to move from their neighborhoods and their social supports, have an opportunity to connect. In that togetherness, people laugh. Children laugh at the clowns, parents laugh at the children laughing at the clowns, and the clowns laugh at refugee camp guards who often laugh along. Spending time together begets camaraderie, which begets mutual trust—laughter is icing on the cake. 

As for our claim to “cure” burnout and PTSD…well, our work is really more of a balm, a treatment for emotional wounds. But that’s just one of clowning’s many ethical interventions that can help our brothers and sisters along their own journeys towards healing. As for the “common cold” claim, some suggest that social support and relationships (and possibly chicken soup) can make a difference!

Kids at St. PJ's in San Antonio, TX

Family Separation: What We Can Do Now

When are you going to Texas? Should I just get in my car and drive to the camps? What can I do to support these kids? 

These types of inquiries have flooded our inbox for the past few weeks. We try to answer some questions here, knowing full well that for many, our answers may be unsatisfactory. 

Why aren’t you performing for the children who have been separated from their parents?

Children who are currently held at temporary camps in Texas (and elsewhere) are under the jurisdiction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Access to the children is limited to CBP personnel and legal counsel. Even the American Red Cross has been denied access, making the camps more impermeable than refugee camps in warzones. CWB – USA does not have access to the camps. If we are able to make contact, and are invited on a tour, we will go.

When are you going to Texas? 

We have been in touch with Refugee Services of Texas, a former project partner, for the past few weeks. Refugee Services (in Texas and every other state) works with refugees, including undocumented minors, who have refugee status within the U.S. In November 2016, CWB – USA toured to Dallas, Texas, and performed for members of these communities. The three-person team taught physical theater and circus to three different groups within the refugee community in Dallas. The tour’s second focus was to help adolescents and adults work through language barriers and connect through physical movement and play. Dallas receives a high number of refugees, mostly from Syria and Congo. CWB – USA has also led multiple tours at St. PJ’s in San Antonio, Texas. St. PJ’s houses children who are victims of abuse and neglect, and its International Program is a government-funded, Health and Human Services approved, facility that cares for a large number of unaccompanied migrant minors. These children have crossed the southern border of the United States, fleeing unspeakable violence in Central America. They reside at St. PJ’s while awaiting their court dates, deportation proceedings, or entrance to the foster care system. We hope to return to Texas this fall in partnership with Refugee Services of Texas.

Should I just get in my car and drive to the camps?

One of CWB – USA’s core values is to only go where invited, and to always work with a partner. For us, filling a van with clowns and driving to the camps would be outside of our Code of Ethics. Having a partner and an invitation is essential for the safety of our team and our audience. We welcome an invitation from Customs and Border Protection, and also any local organization working with refugees within the U.S. 

Sometimes after receiving an invitation, we can mobilize a team within weeks. Other programs take longer to plan. In August, we will be performing in Guatemala, for those impacted by the recent volcano eruption. 

What can I do to support these kids? 

We are inspired by the words of our project partner, Chris Cambises, of Refugee Services Texas: “If you are feeling feeble, take comfort in knowing that from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Miami, Florida, and everywhere in between, there are Refugee Services Agencies. Every community has refugees in it, along with organizations to support those people. You don’t have to look far to get involved.” Click here for more information about refugee resettlement in your state. 

Naomi crouches among the tulips

CWB – USA’s New Executive Director

Clowns Without Borders USA is thrilled to welcome Naomi Shafer into the role of Executive Director!

A Letter from Naomi

Dear CWB Community,

It is an honor to be the Executive Director for Clowns Without Borders. For the past three years, my work with CWB – USA has been a source of inspiration, challenge, and joy. I’m humbled to continue advancing the organization’s mission, inspiring resilience through laughter. I am lucky to have worked with all of CWB – USA’s past Directors. Their continued relationships with the organization is inspiring.

As we plan for the year ahead, on one of the questions we ask is, “how do we offer support in this time of protracted displacement?” Many refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people will never be permanently resettled. Over 65 million people face the uncertainty and inequity of displacement. Each of those people has the right to play, to dream, to laugh. It’s a privilege to share laughter with these populations and to learn from their resilience.

Naomi and a MSF patient sing together in Haiti
Naomi sings with a young boy recovering under MSF medical care in Haiti, December, 2017

Since accepting the Executive Director position, I have had the privilege of getting to know more of the supporters who make this work possible. In addition to the volunteer artists who you know through their blog posts and tour photos, CWB exists thanks to hundreds of people in less photogenic roles. From the local fixers who help us find bottled water, the web-developers who troubleshoot our technical glitches, the travel agent who finds the best deals, and the lawyers and accountants who donate their services, our behind-the-scenes help is endless, and immensely appreciated. Thank you for your support!

Thank you to everyone who takes the time to send us a comment or question about our work. I can’t wait to get to know you better.



Honoring Molly Levine

Molly is surprisedClowns Without Borders is shaped by its volunteers and often, we talk about how these professional artists share their performance skills. Today, we want to tell a story about a very different type of volunteer. 

Five years ago, Molly Levine started volunteering with Clowns Without Borders USA in the office. Since then, she has filled many different roles, including Executive Director, and played a critical in role creating a long-term vision for the organization. Part of her vision was to evolve CWB from a volunteer-run organization to one with staff, as we are today. 

In addition to championing the strategic growth of the organization, she attended to the details of coordinating our tours. Molly is the person who, with grace and patience, waited on hold for hours when flights were missed or baggage lost. She worked with each artist to make sure they were supported before, during, and after tour. Whether the issue at hand was homesickness, heartache, or bellyache, Molly made herself available. 

In addition to serving CWB – USA, Molly has also been a valuable asset to Clowns Without Borders International. Through her participation in the General Assembly, she helped create a shared emergency response protocol, among many other contributions. Sarah Liane Foster, current CWB – USA board member and CWBI representative, shares that Molly listened astutely across linguistic and cultural boundaries to people from 12 different countries, and held space in which everyone felt heard and understood.

Today we are honoring Molly because she has accepted a stupendous new job, and is stepping down from her role as Program Director. We have learned so much from Molly, who can often be heard saying, “Collaboration is greater than competition,” and “Rising tides lift all boats.” Molly epitomizes these adages in all of her work. We can’t wait to see what she does next, even as she continues to support CWB – USA as an advisor during this transitional period and beyond. 

Leapin Louie with kids in Guatemala

CWB – USA Will Go to Guatemala

Clowns Without Borders USA is honored to announce that we will tour to Guatemala later this year. On June 3rd, Volcán de Fuego erupted, annihilating a golf course and the village of San Miguel Los Lotes. Ninety nine people are confirmed dead, with at least 200 still missing, as rescue workers continue to search for survivors. CWB – USA received a message from a local partner, asking us to come for an emergency tour to the region, and we are thrilled to make it happen.

Leapin Louie in Guatemala 2006

We are still in the early stages of planning this tour, and will continue to update as more details are confirmed. Thank you to our members, donors, and volunteer artists for their ongoing support, allowing CWB – USA to be as responsive as possible in times of crisis.




Clowns with kids in Puerto Rico

Where Does the Money Go: Puerto Rico 2018

Clowns Without Borders USA recently wrapped up another fantastic membership drive, and since members provide the backbone of our organizational funding, it’s a great moment to look at how CWB – USA spends money.

We’re often asked how we do so much with so little. The answer is, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind donations in the form of volunteer work, plus the generous monetary donations of members, board members, granting organizations, and individuals. Even with that, money—or lack thereof—is a big part of organizing our tours.

For our early 2018 tour to Puerto Rico, CWB – USA proposed a budget of 8,130USD and came in at 7,093USD, $1,037 less than anticipated. It was gratifying to see just how far we could stretch our funding and how much joy we could spread. It was also exciting to see Molly Levine blow through her fundraising campaign, raising nearly three times as much as her original ask. Asking for money is never easy, which is why we make sure to be transparent about how we spend it.

As with all of our tours, paying local people for their services and getting our clowns to the project location makes the bulk of our expenses. But no matter how much it costs to get people to Puerto Rico (or any project location), the payoff is infinitely greater.

Clowns balance in Puerto Rico

Breakdown of costs for Puerto Rico, 2018:

Travel (baggage fees, insurance): $2,452

Travel is often our biggest expense. In addition to airfare, we purchase emergency insurance for each performer. For this tour, we also had to pay baggage fees for each performer. We work with a travel agent, which adds an extra $30 per person.

In-Country Costs:

Transportation/Our Clown Car: $510

Transportation looks different during each tour. In Puerto Rico, we partnered with a local artist who had his very own circus van! We were fortunate enough to have him as our driver and collaborator. CWB paid for all of our fuel and tolls. We paid a stipend of $400 to account for the wear and tear that invariably occurs from using his vehicle as a green room/dressing room/home away from home. 

Housing: $1500

We prefer to spend our housing money within the local community whenever possible, and in Puerto Rico we were able to rent accomodations in a family home in Bayamon, a suburb of San Juan. Our host, Monique, dreams of creating a healing sanctuary for people visiting or completing projects in Puerto Rico. Our financial contribution paid for her to repaint the house, continuing to fix up the damages she suffered during the hurricane. 

Dinner Preparation: $400

We were able to hire Monique to cook typical dinners for us each night. We paid Monique a stipend to prepare our dinners, and then we ate whatever she felt like cooking. This was such a gift, and allowed us to always finish the day with a nourishing meal. We saved a lot of money, because groceries are much less expensive than restaurants! After starting our days as early as 5am, performing multiple shows, and driving up to five hours, we were grateful to come home to Monique’s home-cooked meals full of love and the flavors of Puerto Rico!

Food: $2200

Food is always the bulk of our expenses on tour, and this was no exception. We came in $200 under budget on food, largely because of our snack experience! Since we knew we’d be having long drives, with short breaks between shows, we prepared ourselves with lots of snacks. Our early mornings started with a stop at a panaderia for coffees and a little breakfast, which normally come out to just a few dollars. We were often generously gifted with meals from our partners or communities where we performed, and on several occasions we had the pleasure of sitting down for lunch in a small town at a typical, family-style restaurant (when we were weren’t too busy with hard boiled eggs or eating the snacks gifted to us by the schools, on the way out of our performances). We fondly came to refer to our trip as the Huevo Duro Tour (the Hard Eggs Tour). 

A few additional dollars were spent on things like socks, t-shirts, broomsticks (Clown Antoine broke two over the course of the trip) and shoe glue. As you can see, the cost breakdown demonstrates that this tour was not only relatively inexpensive, but remained so because of the generosity of our local partners, our host, and our colleague who donated his van. By working in collaboration, we’re really able to stretch our dollars. When we network within our communities, we find the best prices while also supporting locals in a way that feels equitable and respectful to everyone. We know that the more we work in this way, the more we can stretch our dollars to create even more programming. Thank you thank you thank you to all of our partners and collaborators in Puerto Rico. It’s an honor to reflect on how our money flows directly to our partner communities! 

Want to see how this compares to other tours?

Check out the breakdown of expenses from our tours to El Salvador and Haiti.

Kolleen hugs kids in Less

Ambassador Of Fun: What It Means To Wear A Red Nose

CWB – USA board member Kolleen Kintz reflects on what it means to wear a red nose.

Kolleen Kintz

When I put on my red nose, the world gets brighter. It’s like the static frequency of the radio tunes in a bit more clearly, and suddenly…there’s music. There’s something about donning the nose that sharpens the senses. I experience a heightened level of awareness and a deep feeling of connectivity with the people around me. More than anything, my desire to play is awakened.

The red nose itself is an invitation to play. A friend and mentor of mine, Dody Disanto, will say in her workshops, “Ok, time to get your FUN out of the shoebox under the bed!” We all long to play, and some of us have let a little more dust settle on our shoebox than others. I believe it’s the role of the clown to invite play. That sense of joy and wonder, and the nose, are tools by which to do this. I put on my nose and I’m ready to be an ambassador of fun. 

Kolleen greets kids in Less

When volunteering for Clowns Without Borders, the communities we interact with are often recovering from natural disasters or living somewhere like a refugee camp. Children are the first people to lose their rights in situations like this. They lose the right to be a child. A clown performance might offer an hour of escapism for a four-year-old living in fear, and remind her of her capacity to experience joy. The same experience can have a profound effect on the parent of this child, getting to see their little one laugh again. I have witnessed this incredible transformation while spending time looking at the world through my red nose. 

While the nose is a mask, the smallest mask in fact, it is all about amplifying the natural facial features and expressions of the person wearing it. The human being does not get lost behind the clown nose—rather, their humanity is amplified because of it. I often feel in touch with my truest self while wearing a red nose. 

For me, so much of being a clown is about building relationships. Even if these relationships might be short, spanning the length of a performance, or an afternoon, they are deep. When I’m wearing my nose, I feel like people are more willing to let me into their world. This might mean sharing a meaningful glance with a child during a performance, offering my hand to a teenager as they climb onto their friend’s shoulders in an acrobatics workshop, or it could be as simple as listening to someone who needs to share their story. I feel it’s ultimately the red nose, and my open heart, that helps foster the trust for these relationships to exist. 

Little boy holds lots of hats

Political Unrest in Nicaragua

Clowns Without Borders – USA toured to Nicaragua in 2016, in partnership with FUNDACCO. Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, but is the second-poorest in the region, after Haiti. The distribution of wealth is extremely unequal, and many Nicaraguans survive on remittances sent by family members working abroad.

The country features heavily in U.S. history, thanks to repeated episodes of U.S. interventionism and destabilization, beginning with occupation by U.S. Marines at the turn of the 20th century. In 1979, the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua. U.S. President Carter agreed to provide aid to the country with the stipulation that it would be suspended if it was found that the Sandinistas were supporting other revolutionary groups in Central America—and the aid was swiftly suspended after the Carter administration claimed Nicaragua was supporting insurgents in El Salvador. Right-wing groups called contras formed in opposition to the Sandinistas, and were provided funding, arms and training by the CIA under President Ronald Reagan. The contras engaged in a reign of terror against rural Nicaraguans, while the U.S. disrupted shipping to the country and imposed a full trade embargo. Evidence from the Iran-Contra scandal showed that the Regan administration continued to financially support the contras, even after the U.S. Congress prohibited ongoing financial support.

Little girls make shapes during a performance

The 1990s saw a tradeoff of power, as the Sandinista government lost several elections After a constitutional change, former President and one-time Marxist revolutionary, Daniel Ortega (who had previously served between 1984–1990) was able to run for a fourth term. He won by a landslide in 2011. But, in April, 2018, people took to the streets to protest increased taxes and pensions cuts. Independent press in Nicaragua estimates that at least 63 people have been killed and over 400 have been wounded as part of the protests.

After the first eruption of deadly protests, President Ortega announced that his administration was scrapping the unpopular tax plan. But protests have continued, morphing from criticisms of the tax plan to condemnation of the Ortega government. The President and his wife (who is Vice President) attributed street violence to “criminals,” while describing the protesters as a “minuscule” group. However, business leaders have begun to back the protesters, an unusual move in any anti-government movement. Indeed, the protests are viewed as the largest popular uprising in 30 years. The past few days of public dialogue, mediated by the Catholic Church, have not gone well for Ortega, as protesters interrupted him with accusations of murder.



Clowns balance in Puerto Rico

The Escalating Austerity Crisis in Puerto Rico

On May 1, 2018, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets in San Juan, Puerto Rico. May Day, or International Workers’ Day, is a global day of recognition for labor and is often marked by protests and demonstrations.

The island is still reeling from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, and now the 2018 hurricane season is fast approaching. In late January, 2018, FEMA declared “mission accomplished,” and then quickly backpedaled and blamed misinterpretation after receiving intense criticism for the way the agency handled the disaster. Puerto Ricans have waited eight months for help. Instead, our fellow U.S. citizens continue to endure botched FEMA contracts, mismanagement on the part of Prepa, and the indignity of a president (who they cannot vote for) throwing paper towels at survivors and picking twitter fights with rescuers. In March, 2018, mental health crisis calls were up by 246 percent since the same time last year. Thousands of people have emigrated to the U.S. mainland, perhaps permanently. People are still living without electricity.

These widely reported facts bear repeating, because they have not inspired political will on the part of lawmakers responsible for the well-being of Puerto Rican people. Because of its debt crisis, Puerto Rico is beholden to a 2016 federal law called Promesa, which extends bankruptcy protections but requires the island to submit to the rule of an unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board, along with U.S.-supervised economic restructuring of its debt. The governor may draft an economic plan, but it must be certified by the oversight board. As a result, many of the U.S.-favored austerity measures are in conflict with the wishes of Puerto Rican people.

With privatization, job loss and disenfranchisement looming, and no government-proposed solution for the rapid restoration of infrastructure, it’s no wonder that people took to the streets.


Kolleen blows bubbles in Lesvos

What Difference Does a Clown Make?

Welcome to a new blog series, with contributions by CWB – USA’s wonderful board members!

Board member Tim Cunningham is a graduate of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre (’01) and has performed with CWB in 11 countries outside of the United States. Within the borders of the US, Cunningham has performed, lectured and facilitated workshops about CWB’s mission and work at universities and high schools. He received his doctoral degree from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Board president David Rosenthal is currently an Associate Professor and the Director of Management Programs in Health Policy and Management in the Mailman School of Public Health and a behavioral faculty member in the Center for Family and Community Medicine, Columbia University.

CWB – USA often fields questions about the effectiveness of our work. Are we making any difference in peoples lives? Isn’t it frivolous to bring clowns into disaster situations when people are in need of food, water, and shelter? Years ago, a CWB donor lambasted us for “only” bringing clowns. This person asked us, “Why can’t you bring shoes as well? Or other clothing items to give away?” We explained that with just clowns, there is an entire realm of intangible, yet essential, healing that can take place.

And yes, the donor decided to continue contributing!

As you follow this blog, consider reading the footnotes and references. We (Tim and David) are recovering academics and it’s hard for us to write anything that doesn’t include citations. They’re here to support our work and to help answer the question: “Why Clowns Without Borders?”

Living Without Laughter

First, imagine that you’re 10 years old. You’ve been forced to leave your home, possibly your country, and face an uncertain future. Each day, you scrape for food and make sure your shelter doesn’t collapse. You worry that someone in your family might get sick, and medical care isn’t easily accessible. You might wonder, “Do I have a school to go to? A place to hang out with my friends? Or even a safe place to play, to laugh?”

Now, ask yourself, “What would my life be like without laughter?”

Sabine in Lesvos with hoops

Since its founding, Clowns Without Borders USA has focused on a basic idea: Go where you’re invited and go when you’re invited. The purpose of an invitation is to create relationships within the communities we visit, and to avoid imposition. We don’t show up with the first responders. We wait until people have the most basic necessities, like shelter and access to food and water, before we arrive. Once those needs are addressed, people can think about inviting us. So while we don’t bring shoes, we bring smiles for people who might not have much to smile about. Our goal is to provide a degree of normality and play in the lives of children, through laughter.

But do those moments make any difference? We see the impact of our work during every project, and we hear from parents, children and community members. But all the anecdotal evidence and testimonies in the world might not convince someone who’s skeptical about “just clowns.”

The Supporting Research

While the research in this area is far from conclusive, many believe that laughter can make a difference. For example, humor and laughter may help create environments that encourage learning. Educational experts suggest that laughter in a class setting can reduce anxiety, build relationships and improve student performance.1 One of our performing volunteers, Clay, reminds us, “We all laugh in the same language.”2 He points out the ability for laughter to communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers.

We also know that humor and laughter improve physical health.3 Laughter can decrease inflammation in the body (inflammation can make you sick, weak, and have a decreased immune response to fight back against disease and infection)4; it can make pain feel less painful5; and it’s good for the young and old alike!6

So when people say to us, “You need to bring more than just clowns,” we tell them that we are also bringing—rather, sharing—health through laughter.

1 Savage, Brandon M., Heidi L. Lujan, Raghavendar R. Thipparthi, and Stephen E. DiCarlo. “Humor, laughter, learning, and health! A brief review.” Advances in physiology education41, no. 3 (2017): 341-347.
2 From Al Jazeera, 2018, available at:
3 Foot, Hugh. Humor and laughter: Theory, research and applications Routledge, 2017.
4 Bains, Gurinder, Lee Berk, Everett Lohman, Noha Daher, and Belinda Miranda. “Decrease in Inflammation (CRP) and Heart Rate Through Mirthful Laughter.” The FASEB Journal 31, no. 1
5 Elmali, Hülya, and Reva Balci Akpinar. “The effect of watching funny and unfunny videos on post-surgical pain levels.” Complementary therapies in clinical practice 26 (2017): 36-41.
6 Ellis, Julie M., Ros Ben ‘Cambria Math’, Moshe, and Karen Teshuva. “Laughter yoga activities for older people living in residential aged care homes: A feasibility study.” Australasian journal on ageing 36, no. 3 (2017).