With a healthy dose of silliness, Clowns on Call frees kids to be kids

October 1, 2013


If laughter is the best medicine, it stands to reason that a clown's bedside manner can do wonders to help a sick child heal.

At least that's the philosophy behind "Clowns on Call," an outreach program started by St. Louis' Circus Flora in February 2012. Its mission is to "bring laughter, healing and the wonder of circus to hospitalized children and their families," by sending in the clowns to two St. Louis area hospitals, Mercy Children's Hospital St. Louis and SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center.

Since Clowns on Call's inception, Claire Wedemeyer has been the program's chief clown-in-residence. Donning a big red nose and colorful clown suit, with her hair in pigtails and pulling a wagon filled with props, Wedemeyer visits each hospital once a week. She sings, dances, plays the ukulele, juggles, performs magic tricks and improvises — whatever is needed to put a smile on a child's face.

"Almost every time I visit I hear the phrase from someone, a nurse, a doctor, a parent, who says, 'That was the first time we've seen a smile all day,'" says Wedemeyer, referring to the child she's entertaining.

Most of the time, she works with a partner so the two can play off each other. Some of the biggest laughs come when she drops her pants or bumps into a wall or gets in an argument with a broom and the broom wins.

"The goal is to help the children change their focus from feeling bad to feeling better," she says, explaining that she often will teach them how to spin a plate, or balance a feather, or wear a clown nose — something they can master and later try on a nurse or doctor or their parents to get a laugh.

"The good news is that most of the children I see are going to get better," says Wedemeyer. "But there are some who don't and who I've gotten to know better because I see them again and again when I come."

One such child was a 4 year old named Keith who had spent half his life in the hospital battling leukemia. "What he and his parents appreciated was that when I came, Keith got to be a kid," says Wedemeyer. "He was poked and prodded so much because of the many procedures he was going through.

"But when I came, he was able to be a kid and not a patient. There were no worries about vital signs or blood counts or treatments or any of the medical terms that dominated his short life. There was just this space that was pure slapstick and him being a little kid and having fun."

Wedemeyer estimates that she has visited with more than 2,000 children since the program started. Although most of her visits are done bedside, she sometimes performs group shows for patients, their siblings and parents at the hospital waiting areas and playrooms.

"Claire does a wonderful job assessing each child's individual needs. If she goes into a room and the child is unsure of her, she performs from the hallway until the child has gotten more comfortable," says Nicole Saracino, a child-life specialist at SSM Cardinal Glennon.

"She understands that some children need time to warm up and she works to build that rapport with patients. The kids love her, and she always leaves them laughing and feeling better," says Saracino.

Unfortunately, adds Damon Harbison, vice president of operations at SSM Cardinal Glennon, spending time at the hospital is a fact of life for many sick children. "The opportunity to just be a kid through difficult times is an important part of healing and a cornerstone of our mission to provide the best care for kids," he says. "Clowns on Call provides children with an opportunity to just be silly and spend time with the incredible clowns from Circus Flora."

The Clowns on Call program costs roughly $45,000 a year to operate, according to Susan Mintz, director of development at Circus Flora. She said the first year of the program was funded by a grant from the Centene Charitable Foundation.

"We are now seeking additional grants to help sustain the program," she added, noting that the St. Louis Cardinals Care fund and St. Louis Symphony's Community Partnerships, along with other St. Louis-based arts groups, including Circus Flora, contribute to the program.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.