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Driscoll's Clowns Who Care turn frowns upside down

‘Penelope the Pirate’ (Beth Owens) gives a high-five to 11-year-old patient Uriah Davila at Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi recently. Also clowning around were (from rear left to front right), ‘Hippie Bee Bop’ (Mrsai Bass), ‘Ya Ya Doodle Dandy’ (Bridget McKeever), ‘Princess Tina the Ballerina’ (Laurie Plant ) and ‘Quirky Queen of Hearts’ (Jill Jacobs). Photo by Jane Kathleen Gregorio

What began as a joke between seven women 25 years ago has grown into a full-fledged organization of 39 clown volunteers called Clowns Who Care. Every Wednesday and Saturday, shifts of three to four clowns volunteer their time to cheer up patients and drop off small toys to the children at Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi. It all started with a simple ambition that some thought simply silly.

Mary Anne Sinclair had always wanted to be a clown, but each time she brought it up to her family, her children would protest.

“They would say, 'No! For crying out loud, Mama!’” she recalled with a laugh when telling the story to Corpus Christi Business News.

It stayed a secret passion until 25 years ago, when Sinclair was diagnosed with breast cancer and sent to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for treatment. On one trip there, a female clown walked into her room and turned her life around.

"I was so delighted! I absolutely adored her, and she stayed and talked with me for a few hours,” Sinclair said. “I told her if I survived this cancer, I really wanted to become a clown.”

After recovering, Sinclair kept the promise, and for the next few months, drove herself to Houston to attend clown school. (Del Mar College had not yet added clowning to its curriculum.)

"When my husband was alive, he would say to me, 'Listen, Mary Anne. Don't tell anybody you're going to clown school. Tell them instead you're having an affair in Houston, but don't tell them you're going to clown school,’” she said.

She kept it under wraps as requested, but a day before her graduation, she broke the news to six of her friends.

"When I told them I was graduating from clown school, they all just held their sides and laughed their heads off," Sinclair said. "At that time, I had a seamstress make a darling costume for me, and when I showed it to them, they exclaimed, 'By golly, we want a costume, too!' I said, ‘Only if you go to Driscoll Children's Hospital and clown with me.’ So they all agreed, and that's how it got started!"

CLOWNING AROUND

According to Sinclair, clowning is harder than it looks. After a few hours of applying makeup, wigs, fake eyelashes and glittery, sequined costumes, Clowns Who Care spend at least four hours each volunteer day going room to room to visit patients. Then, it takes time to remove the costume and makeup and wash your hair.

“But despite the long hours, you look back and realize this is where you need to be,” Sinclair said. “It’s the hardest, yet the most rewarding, thing any of us has ever done.”

The impact of seeing children suffer from illness can take a toll on anyone. In fact, two of the clowns from their group had to quit because they could not bear the emotional distress.

“It's really hard, especially the first year, because you see some desperately sick and abused children, and it just breaks your heart,” Sinclair said. “But if you can get through the first year, you kind of drop a little bit of a curtain. It still gets hard, but it's not impossible. Making kids smile is such a gratifying feeling.”

After 25 years clowning around, Sinclair mostly lets the younger generation of clowns volunteer. However, she still gets dressed for special occasions and is considered the Fairy Godmother with her portrayal of “Mz. Glamure” clown.

Volunteer Jill Jacobs, who plays “Quirky Queen of Hearts,” recalled how she, too, wanted to be a clown since she was a girl.

"My role models are Mary Anne Sinclair and Chris Adler, who was my neighbor,” Jacobs said. “When I discovered she was a clown, I've been begging them to let me be one, but they kept telling me I was too young. And then one day, they called me and said I've been nominated to fill a vacant clown position. I was really excited! I guess I've finally grown up and matured enough to become a clown!"

Beth Owens, “Penelope the Pirate,” was inspired to volunteer at Driscoll Children's Hospital because her mother had worked for the pediatric ICU unit for 24 years.

“Usually someone is added when a space becomes vacant, but those spots are rare because there is a HUGE waiting list,” Owen said. “If there was ever a vacancy, a potential clown has to be nominated by other clowns. Hardly anyone retires.”

On her rounds, Owen is in charge of the toy cart, pushing it room to room and handing out presents to the patients.

"One of the local banks here in town have generously supplied us with toys for the past several years,” Owen said. “And this December, the Rhode Island Toys company gave us additional toys to give kids for the holidays.” Laura Davila, who was recently visiting her 11-year-old daughter, Uriah, at the hospital, was touched by the clowns.

"It’s so wonderful to have them visit her,” she said, referring to her daughter. “They really raised up her spirits, and it's so great for them to come here and do that for the kids.”

Uriah said she felt like a party was happening in her hospital room when a group of five clowns came in bearing balloons and a toy pink tiger for her.

"I really loved it when they came in,” she said. “They kept making me laugh. Even when they first walked in, I felt really surprised. They are so cool!! I kept giving them high-fives!"

Volunteer Laurie Plant, “Princess Tina the Ballerina,” said a smile means they are doing their job right. "If I can make them smile, I feel like I've accomplished my work," Plant said. “It's so satisfying working with these young patients.”

The hospital's volunteer director, Lizette Saenz, has been working closely with Clowns Who Care for the past 11 years.

"The clowns demonstrate the healing power of humor,” she said. “They have brought joy and delight not only to the patients but also to the families and staff as well. They bring fun and laughter to our patients with every visit, which helps to ease the stress that illness brings. I can't imagine Driscoll Children's Hospital without them," Saenz said.

Sinclair hopes her legacy will inspire other groups to join the cause.

"There are other hospitals where a clown group might work well,” she said. “We would love to see a men's clown group established.”

For more information on the program, visit driscollchildrens.org and type “Clowns Who Care” in the search box. Driscoll Children’s Hospital has several other volunteer options. For more information call (361) 694-5011.

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