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Taking smiles to a troubled land

Caring Clowns go to Vietnam.

Picture a stoic policeman directing traffic in Saigon with staccato hand movements, incongruously wearing a pink balloon belt and sword.

The clowns have been in town.

“We put the belt and sword on him,” said Jed Selter, “Duffy the Clown” for Caring Clowns International. “And he bowed, and went on directing traffic.”

CCI is a Bainbridge-based project of the nonprofit Earthstewards Network, which takes mirth, money and gifts to disabled and indigent children in Vietnam.

Last March, CCI visited Dien Ban Hospital in Hoi An, Vietnam through a chance in-plane meeting with Interplast, an organization of volunteer plastic surgeons. The clowns accompanied the doctors to amuse the young patients recovering in an open-air post-op.

The power at the hospital went out as the clowns arrived, recalls Marcia “Missy Kissy” Smith Hill.

“As the doctors were trying to keep the patients alive, we brought out stickers and balloons, and I played ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ on the keyboard while the patients clapped along,” Smith Hill said. “We used music to ease the stress of the doctors and patients.

“Clowning is the same as music. It doesn’t need language. It’s about laughter, tears and joy.”

The return of the clowns has become an annual event in the city of Hue, with CCI regaling passers-by in the streets and giving out stickers, balloons and red clown noses. Selter says that sometimes a group of 80 or so children follow them around town.

“(Next) time, we’re bringing 1,000 clown noses to pass out,” Selter said.

Hill said he was surprised that the Vietnamese bore no ill-will over the American role in a conflict that savaged the country for decades. But U.S. ambassadors he met explained that of the nation’s 80 million-plus population, less than 15 percent remember the war, and about half are under the age of 21.

“They (the Vietnamese) live in today, not yesterday,” Hill said. “Even when they have so little to give, they’re very giving.”

Renewal

You might say Vietnam gave Hill the gift of giving.

When approached in 1999 by Bainbridge Island’s non-profit Kids First, to accompany them to Haiphong, Vietnam, Hill was a reluctant clown.

During the Vietnam War, he served in the submarine service, and had been sent to mine Haiphong harbor.

“I didn’t want to go (back). I had friends who had been changed by the war,” Hill said.

Still, he went. There he met a 6-year-old girl who was deaf, mute, sight-impaired, developmentally challenged and in a wheelchair.

“I ‘bumped the nose’ with her and she laughed. The housemothers were in tears, and at first I thought I’d done something wrong,” Hill said. “But they told me it was the very first time they’d seen her laugh.

“I knew I had to come back and not alone, because there were so many kids.”

He put out a call and co-founded Caring Clowns International in 2002 with Selter, Smith Hill, and Lois “CoCo” Kerr. The group now has 30 members, and Hill will make his sixth trip to Vietnam as clown next month.

The group will bring three orphanages $500 each – a significant sum, given that the average income for a Vietnamese family of five is $250-350 a year.

Although the clowns must be aware of some cultural issues – not touching the head of a Buddhist child, and knowing that an American wave of “hello” might look like “go away” to a Vietnamese – “having a language barrier helps when you approach a person looking like us,” Selter said. “It’s an oddity to look foolish, (but you can) connect without words.

“The real sensitivity is what to do or not because of the situation or a child’s disabilities.”

Hill recalls a time the group set up a show with boom-box music, only to discover just before taking the stage that the children were blind and deaf.

They quickly set up balls for the deaf children to hold to feel the music vibrations, and a sighted-interpreter for the blind children.

“The show went off with out a hitch,” Hill said. “It was improvisation honoring the situation.”

Besides trips to Vietnam, CCI also regales local VA hospitals and nursing homes, and makes a quarterly trip to Children’s Hospital in Seattle.

To date, the clowns have paid their own way to Vietnam, passing on funds raised to the orphanages and hospitals.

The group now is developing a five-year business plan detailing its partner groups. Projects are as diverse as a “teaching” pig farm established by Kids First and helping a Vietnamese child get a prosthetic leg through the AARP Mercer Island Chapter.

In the meantime, Caring Clowns will continue to delight.

“It’s more than friendship,” Selter said. “We don’t have an agenda – it’s open reverie in dealing with people.”

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