The bearded man with the gray ponytail sits at a table, alone and looking like he wants to keep it that way. When he speaks, it's to talk about a time in his youth when he decided "I should not befriend new people, because they're likely to die." Even now, he goes on to say, "I still don't get too close to many people."
Flash forward to another scene. Same man, same beard and ponytail, tattoos visible on his forearms, but now he's prancing around in a red tutu over striped pants, sporting a red nose, a pink ball cap and an oversized, polka-dot tie and yukking it up with a gaggle of kids and a bunch of other burly guys who are just as outlandishly attired.
What accounts for the shift between scenes? The man in the red tutu is 71-year-old Vietnam veteran Mike O'Connor, who summoned a different kind of bravery to take part in an experiment in humanitarian clowning, traveling to Guatemala with a group of other veterans to spread smiles in hospitals and orphanages. In the process, he and the other Vets stepped out of the "suffer zone" into a more playful, loving space.
Clownvets, a program of physician Patch Adams's Gesundheit! Institute, is the subject of a documentary film-in-progress, and in a bit I'll tell you how you can help the filmmakers finish, distribute and promote the film.
But first, a bit of background. I first heard about the Clownvets project from my neighbor Mark Kane, a licensed psychologist who has seen from his work with veterans how trauma affects the mind, body and spirit. In fact, it was Mark's exposure to Vietnam veterans as a conscientious objector working with the American Friends Service Committee years ago that prompted him to become a psychologist.
"Post-traumatic stress, in a variety of names, has been with us since the beginning of time," says Mark. "It's not really a disease like polio is . . . It's normal people reacting normally to very un-normal circumstances."
Statistics on the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are sobering. In the U.S., more than twenty Veterans commit suicide daily. Many more experience physical and psychological symptoms that ripple out to affect their families and communities. As a step toward relieving some of that suffering, Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute came up with the idea of introducing Vets to humanitarian clowning.
Known for his work with warriors experiencing PTSD, Mark was asked to help recruit Vets for the Gesundheit! project. All he knew about Patch Adams at the time was that Robin Williams had depicted him in the eponymous 1998 movie, but Mark quickly learned more about the clowning physician and got onboard with the project.
Getting Vets into tutus and rainbow wigs isn't as crazy an idea as it may seem. The nonprofit Gesundheit! Institute bases its holistic brand of medical care on the notion that the health of the individual is closely tied to the health of the family, community, society and world. A leader in the development of therapeutic clowning, Gesundheit! has been sending trained volunteers around the world since 1985 to clown in healthcare settings and distressed communities. They soon learned that it wasn't only the people on the receiving end who benefited from silliness and "spontaneous, interactive play." The clowns themselves—even those who'd started out depressed—came home happy.
In 2015, the first cohort of Clownvets traveled to Guatemala, and the experience was transformative.
"They saw that they could be part of the solution, instead of causing devastation," says Mark. In the film, several of the Vets, including Mike O'Connor, reflect on the experience.
"I never thought that I would interact with people the way that I did," Mike says. "It's probably a good thing for me, because I do like to isolate, and I couldn't there. It brought me a little bit out of my shell and helped me to interact with people once I got back home."
When the first group of Clownvets returned, they helped recruit volunteers for a second trip in 2016.
That's when Chilean filmmaker Esteban Rojas, a longtime friend and collaborator of the Gesundheit! Institute, got involved. What Esteban saw "blew his mind," to quote from an online write-up about the project. "Listening to their life stories, hearing the horrors that they went through, but also seeing how their faces changed while trying the clowning, convinced him that this story needed to be told."
A month later, Esteban traveled to West Michigan to film Mark and some of the Vets in their daily lives and interview them about their experiences. Mark took on the role of producer and has been working closely with Esteban, co-editor Luis Bahamondes, and executive producers Charlotte Huggins and John Glick on the film, which includes material filmed by a different camera crew on the 2015 Veterans clown trip. Veteran Mike O'Connor has signed on to the film project as a consultant.
Another friend of ours, Eldon Howe, is also involved with the film. In his day job, Eldon is owner of Howe Construction, a company that builds ecology-based, disaster-resistant homes all over the world. But he's also a talented singer-songwriter who expresses himself musically through guitar compositions. Some of his music is included in the film's soundtrack—the perfect accompaniment to footage of our West Michigan environs.
I had a chance to view an early version of the film, and to say I was impressed and moved is a huge understatement. Though I had talked with Mark on many occasions about the Clownvets project, I never quite grasped the enormity of its impact until I saw on screen how the Vets and the people with whom they interacted were lifted up through clowning.
Wearing silly hats, splashy costumes and of course, red noses, the Clownvets and Gesundheit! staffers gently coax smiles out of children and adults who are living with serious physical and emotional conditions. They hold hands, play with puppets and blow bubbles and kisses.
As Mark puts it, "the red nose works as an excuse to connect these men and women with love, compassion, laughter and friendship, things that for these heroes seemed forgotten."
"Clownvets" is well on its way to becoming a high-quality, 90-minute feature film, but it has hit a roadblock. Funding has run out, yet there's still more work to be done: filming additional scenes and interviews, finishing the editing, tending to other technical details.
That's where you can help. First, view the movie trailer here. Then, please consider making a donation in support of the project. Visit the Gesundheit! Institute's "Donate" page, and under the heading "How would you like to support our work?" select "Support the Veterans Clown Trip Film Project."
You're also invited see a preview of the film and meet some Clownvets in person at a "Fun-Raiser" this Friday, November 17, 6-10 p.m., at Ferris State University's University Center, 805 Campus Drive, Big Rapids.
Short of cash? Too far from Big Rapids to make the preview? You can still help by spreading the word about this project on social media. The Clownvets will reward you with a slew of heartfelt smiles, and maybe they'll even blow you a kiss.
* Photos: Gesundheit! Institute
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.