There is an enormous need for laughter in Southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Yesterday, my clown partner, Elisa Lane, and I completed our nine-day tour of this stricken region and are still overwhelmed by the damage done to the infrastructure. For many, life is still a struggle, with few positive outlets or happy distractions. At the Diamond FEMA Trailer Park, a mini-city seemingly in the middle of nowhere, kids leave the site each morning for school – a brief respite from claustrophobic living conditions. Once they return to the trailer park, there is nothing for them to do. Some kids aren’t even making it to school. One child told us, “I used to go to school. I liked school.” We heard similar words from a preschool-aged boy while clowning at a shelter provided by Common Ground Relief.
In the latter half of our trip, we clowned at the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, following in the footsteps of our clown colleagues, Deven and Yvette. The kids got up and danced with Elisa while I played my accordion. One kid ran up on stage to become part of the action, seeming briefly to forget that his IV system was still attached. His mother rushed after him, the IV system in tow. In a place called Harvey, just outside New Orleans, we visited an elementary school for special needs children. We performed for about 200 kids as part of their Very Special Arts Festival. One boy we brought on stage during an interactive bit, loved whales. I mean, LOVED whales. He wasn’t shy about his feelings either, so a good portion of our show turned into a lesson on Marine Biology. We followed his lead, gave him the stage and were totally impressed by the young guy’s knowledge of mammalian sea life. The kids were such a delight to perform for. After our show they gave us wonderful hugs! -My favorite reward for clowning!
In Waveland, Mississippi, we clowned for a children’s shelter and an after school program. We played in the hot spring air and cracked up around 300 people, most of whom where elementary and high school-aged. No small feat! These kids live in a community that was one of the hardest hit during the hurricane. Elisa and I made approximately 1,760 people affected by Hurricane Katrina laugh during our nine-day stay, but the truth is that these kids really need permanent services to replace programs that were lost or discontinued as a consequence of Katrina.
We are happy to help where we can, but at times it is frustrating to offer only a short respite to the children and teachers who work hard everyday with very little.
Still, we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe that it makes a difference. One of the great challenges of clowning for children is that you’re bound to encounter kids who think they’re too cool to participate. In some cases they may withdraw from the group, sometimes they’ll heckle you. In our show we call upon young audience members to join us on stage. We often call on the more disruptive kids to include them in the fun rather than compete for the audience’s attention. The pride they feel from being picked and then applauded by their classmates brings an instantaneous change in their behavior. These kids deserve a stage, and when they get one they are beaming and unforgettable performers.