You’ve probably heard of Doctors Without Borders – an international group the provides medical care in places where war, epidemics and natural disasters have overwhelmed local physicians. Modeling itself on that concept, a group of clowns formed 25 years ago, vowing to bring laughter to the people who need it most.
A trumpet announces the start of a show for children and families in East Africa. It’s a moment of joy for people who have suffered through civil war, an outbreak of ebola and a life of poverty.
“The world seems to be splitting at the seams," observes Tim Cunningham, a professional clown. " If we look politically, if we look at natural disasters, people are being separated, pushed apart.”
But laughter can bring us together, and that’s why Cunningham spends his spare time juggling, doing magic tricks and pratfalls to make people laugh.
“When you laugh, your heart rate changes," he explains. " Your respiratory rate changes, we think there’s a decrease in stress hormones, so things change, and in that moment of change – even if it’s brief – you’re able to step back and say, ‘Maybe I can look at this situation differently.”
He’s also a long distance runner who’s finished 41 marathons – 11 of them run barefoot to raise money for Clowns Without Borders. As the group’s director and now a member of its board, he has traveled the world – visiting places in crisis.
“That crisis could be a safe home in rural Texas where we have worked," Cunningham says. "That crisis could be in Sierra Leone where I went about a month ago, working with ebola survivors and children who had lost their families to ebola. It could be post typhoon Hyen a couple of years ago in the Philippines, or an active war zone.”
And he’s played for some of the world’s 65 million refugees including those fleeing civil war in Syria.
“People arrived on rafts," he recalls. "The clowns were there performing for children and families, and an older woman came up to the clowns afterwards and said, ‘I have not seen my daughter laugh since we left Libya months ago,’ and then she said, ‘I laughed.’”
It might seem insensitive for clowns to turn up in places of great tragedy and suffering, but Cunningham says the clown volunteers – numbering about a hundred worldwide -- only go where they’re invited, and they do provide a valuable service.
" For a while I used to think we need to wait until things settle out, right? We need to wait until the camps form. Food needs to be there, the supplies need to be there, but in the last five years we’ve gotten calls from NGOs within days of a disaster saying, ‘We need clowns right now, because people are recognizing we need to mitigate the boredom, to say, ‘We can’t fix these other pieces, but we can do something to bring you together, and we can do something to take your mind off of it,” Cunningham explains.
A native of Waynesboro, Cunningham first encountered clowns at his church. He was amazed by their ability to tell a story – to entertain without saying a word. After getting a college degree in English, he attended clown school, then worked with the Big Apple Circus, performing in hospitals. Through Clowns Without Borders he traveled to Haiti, where he saw a child die from malnutrition. That experience moved him to step out of the limelight to get a master’s degree in nursing at UVA and to pursue a PhD in that subject at Columbia.
Now, with a joint appointment in the nursing and drama schools, Cunningham is teaching others to treat patients’ physical problems while boosting their spirits.