Clowns spreading sunshine for six years

Oak-Bay based clowns use laughter as their medicine

Amanda Gafter Ricks interacts with a resident at Beacon Hill Villa during a Sunshine Clowns visit.

Amanda Gafter Ricks interacts with a resident at Beacon Hill Villa during a Sunshine Clowns visit.

Clowns aren’t just for kids; the long-held belief that laughter is the best medicine holds true for adults and even seniors.

Oak Bay is a home base of sorts for the Sunshine Clown Band.

The dozen or so clowns in this troupe endeavour to stretch beyond entertaining and into the realm of social work.

They produce a show called Dancing with Fish, a multi-fringe festival performance they also put on this fall at the Oak Bay United Church, which happens to be where they store their costumes and props and practise their craft.

Aside from that show, they have year-round impact in long-term care homes around the region as care clowns.

“You should see the effect clowns have on people in care facilities. They just light up,” says founding member Jim Ricks. “We sing with them and play and do silly things. We give hugs and stickers that say ‘I hugged a clown today’. We’ve got some interactive things we do … all of it is important. We pitch ourselves at the level the people are.”

The Sunshine Clown Band started a little over six years ago, says Ricks. He and his daughter Amanda Gafter-Ricks and pal Scott Smith were in a choir together and decided to form the band.

“We weren’t musically as together as we needed to be,” Ricks says. “If you want to be funny doing music you better be good at it. You can’t just be bad.”

The clown band idea quickly grew into something more socially responsible. They do shows around the region, including regular performances at care homes.

“We do some singing and dancing but it’s more a clown show. That’s where we’ve evolved to,” Ricks says.

Gafter-Ricks, a registered drama therapist, started clowning many years ago and remembers it as, “fooling around and playing around the piano.” Already a professional, she’s toured and worked as a clown.

Gafter-Ricks, though, knows the keen difference between getting the laughs and providing a service.

“We are not about entertaining. We are about connecting with the individuals we are meeting. Ultimately it’s about connecting on that human level as opposed to entertainment,” she says. “All of our clowns have a social service background. We have really arrived at the conclusion that anyone who’s coming in to do care clowning has to have those fundamental skill sets around social service and being in service for others, ideally.”

The clowns’ experience runs the gamut from child care to working with seniors.

“Those skills that you learn and those professions really do translate as care clowns,” Gafter-Ricks says.

She points out newer clown Ann Sorensen, who joined this spring after retiring from 26 years working at the Queen Alexandra Centre.

All Sorensen originally knew about therapeutic clowning was what she gleaned from Patch Adams, the movie starring Robin Williams, where the titular character made those in the most dire medical situations smile. It left her intrigued, and Sorensen knew upon retirement she’d be seeking to fill the void of years spent working with children. She found some care clown training in Montreal in 2012 and there learned of the Sunshine Clowns back home and joined up.

“The word is getting out there, but there are a lot of people that don’t know much about care clowning or even that it exists,” Sorensen said. “They’re making a huge difference in a really sweet way.”

Now her character Mimsy is a part of the Sunshine roster.

“There are aspects of it where it’s beautiful that you tap into a childlike part of yourself and you reach people in a different way. It means so much to people who can be so isolated. It’s a wonderful way to connect with people,” she said. “I’m new, and with clowning you take on a clown persona but the clown persona has aspects of you in it. You take a characteristic that isn’t your best quality and you exaggerate the dickens out of it.”

Mimsy tries hard, but drops things and wears a bicycle bell as a ring. “She does her best,” Sorensen says with a laugh.

Mimsy works with others such as Bungle (Ricks) and Goldie Rae (Gafter-Ricks) on routine schedules at three regional facilities: Beacon Hill Villa, Cridge Village and Luther Court. A routine session entails two clowns and a handler.

“It’s as much a gift being in service as it is receiving services. I have always found that laughter, music, touch and that fundamental human connection is vital to all of our health, let alone someone who is now aging, who has lost autonomy,” Gafter-Ricks says. “It also really translates to people who visit the people we have visited. They get to see that somebody else cares and had an impact.”

For three years they’ve provided hugs to the 80 residents of Beacon Hill Villa in Victoria.

“It’s extremely important. I’d seen the power of clowning at a conference I was at on arts and health care,” said Kristy Brugman, therapeutic recreation department manager at Beacon Hill Villa. “I witnessed things that can unfold when you’re being playful. We see a lot of people come out of their shell. When a clown comes around it gives you permission to step out of your normal routine and play.”

The clowns use body language and eye contact to read the situation, then extend a playful invitation, and the resident either engages and invites them in or gives them a sign to go away. “They are really experts at what they do … they’re inviting people to engage.”

Brugman recalled a man, who sulked in his room, forever lamenting there was nothing to do. He was stuck in a bored state of mind.

“I came back around after the clowns had been in his unit. He was laying with his mask on his face,” she said. “He had his finger above his head dancing with a red clown nose on it – giggling.”

Moments like that are the norm, not the exception, Brugman says.

“In a busy environment, this is something that offers people just that moment to truly decide what’s going to happen. They have some autonomy in that moment. They get to choose how they want to interact and whether they want to interact.”

Learn more about care clowning and their philosophy online at thesunshine