Flint Bozo Brigade Clowning is part of the program for some students

By Beata Mostafavi

The Flint Journal

FLINT, Mich. (AP) -- It's a classroom where students trade daytime personas for the names "Beano," "Messy" and "Sunshine."

They decorate faces in red paints, droopy eyelashes and big noses and wear tall hats and baggy pants. Their homework: Learn to juggle, make animal balloons and do magic tricks.

And you won't ever hear the teacher say, "Stop clowning around."

They call themselves the "Mott Campus Clowns," the first known clown troupe at Mott Community College and believed to be among the first in the country to engage in clowning as a rare service learning project.

For their honors program, the 10 students in the Social Diversity and Civic Engagement class are required to fulfill community service hours. But they aren't renovating homes or volunteering at the food shelter.

Their service: to make people smile.

"I thought we'd do a river cleanup or something (when I signed up)," said student Shane Brotherton, 19. "When (the teacher) said we were going to be clowns, I was, like, 'What did I get myself into?' but it's a rare opportunity not a lot of people get."

The MCC baseball player sports a banana yellow curly wig, Scooby-Doo vest and bright red mouth in his clown role as "Rosco" and is usually spotted juggling balls and sometimes dropping them for a laugh in between crowds.

"When you're clowning, no one knows who you are," said Brotherton of Flushing Township. "You can be whoever you want to be."

Some students who never have danced on a dance floor have spontaneously broken into dance moves with children, mastered silly faces for photos and gotten used to signing autographs.

They've scoured YouTube, self-help books and DVDs to teach themselves how to juggle and make balloon figures for children and adults at local hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

They've spent entire weekends clowning for Boys and Girls clubs, community agencies and nonprofit fundraisers in Flint, Detroit and Lansing.

"My hope for the students was they would have what I call moments of humanity where they really engage with people on a humanistic level," said MCC instructor Brian Ivory, a former professional clown who joins the troupe as clown "Bubba."

"They are having a real profound experience. When you're in makeup and costume, you're no longer a person and you're able to interact with people you normally wouldn't interact with and who normally wouldn't interact with you."

For usually soft-spoken Jasmine Walker, 22, a self-described "introvert," clowning wasn't something she ever planned for her résumé.

"When I signed up, I didn't know what kind of service we'd be doing," said Walker of Flint. "When I saw the email, I was, like, 'Dress like clowns? I don't know about that.' "

But as "Yippie," the Riverfront Residence Hall resident adviser's boisterous side surfaces. Sporting a red polka-dotted puffy dress and cherry-colored wig, she whips out card and scarf tricks that always prompt "How did you do that?" questions from bewildered children.

She responds with "I can't tell you. It's magic."

"She's my alter ego," Walker said of "Yippie." "It's forcing me to come out of my shell. I'm not used to being the center of attention. I don't like taking pictures. I would never start dancing in a public place for no reason. Yippie does. She's the life of the party."

The group's audience has ranged from babies to people older than 80.

At the Special Olympics, a favorite event for the group, it didn't take long for members to be surrounded by droves of fans asking for photos and autographs.

"Nobody has ever asked for my autograph before. We were like celebrities," Walker said with a laugh. "We didn't have to do much to make them happy.

"Dressing as a clown isn't just about acting and being silly," she said. "It's about brightening someone's day. It means a lot to a lot of people. It's amazing to see their faces. It's an emotional connection, and in the city of Flint, we need all the happiness we can get."

Howard Rosing, executive director for Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning at DePaul University in Chicago, said he'd never heard of students taking on clowning as a service learning project but wasn't surprised by the creativity.

"The sky's the limit on service learning," said Rosing, who this year is co-heading the International Association for Research on Service-learning and Community Engagement conference in Chicago. "To some degree, performance arts is an underdeveloped area of service learning, but it can be very powerful.

"It is certainly in line with service learning values, because essentially it involves students learning skills and engaging in community."

The MCC group's motto: "Our hearts are bigger than our shoes."

Sometimes it's parents who giggle at the clowns' tricks and antics. Once, high school students mobbed the red-nosed group in the street after a parade, backing up traffic.

Others could use the cheer more than others, such as the youngest patients of Hurley Medical Center's emergency room wing. One little boy's mother cried when she saw how happy the big-haired guests made her son.

"After all that, you go to dinner, and no one is honking or waving at you," said Thomas Tanner, 27, of Gaines, whose alter-persona "Noodles" is spotted doing comedy puppetry acts involving fuzzy monkey pet "Bobo."

"That made me realize how much of a privilege being a clown is."

Like some of the other students, longtime florist Heather Ketzler, 44, of Montrose said she was hesitant about donning a hot pink wig, rainbow-colored dress and giant shoes for the first time.

"I'm definitely outside of my comfort zone," said the mother of two who now relishes her role as "Daisy." "It brings out the little kid in you."

Published: Thu, Nov 24, 2011