By Amanda Paul, GRH volunteer correspondent
Janet and Ian are two volunteers who have brought laughter and smiles to everyone at GRH for 20 years. Also known as Smiley and Happy, this brother-sister pair are known as “Freeport’s Clowns”.
This clowning duo emerged from the program called Joke Junction that served purposes of providing jokes, humour, and entertainment to the patients of both campuses, KW and Freeport.
As time went on, the Joke Junction program had run its’ course. However, Smiley and Happy continue to make the day of patients, visitors, and staff of GRH.
Why did you start volunteering at GRH?
Ian: Well for me it was an outgrowth of being a volunteer in the palliative care unit, I did that since 1997. Then we switched to helping out with, what was then called Joke Junction, that became clowning with my sister. Joke Junction was a part of the KW campus, but since it was a need all throughout both campuses, we thought we should do it at Freeport as well.
The nature of what we did was showing videos and providing people with jokes throughout their day. We would walk around with a trolley that had videos, a TV, a VCR, and a catalogue of which movies they would like to watch. Once they are finished with the movies, would pick up these materials at another time.
Janet: At one point, Ian was having surgery. So, I said that I could fill in. I thought it would be a good idea to speak to people walking by and tell them about Joke Junction and if they knew anyone who would like a movie to watch. We would put jokes, or anything humorous, on the windows so that everyone could read them when they walked by. We would post jokes on the window according to the season.
Ian: As time went on Joke Junction had served its time. However, the clowning seemed to turn out very well. We’ve been doing that for about 9 to 10 years.
Why did you decide to volunteer together?
Janet: I wanted to follow in my big brothers’ footsteps. I thought it was something that we could do together and enjoy. I feel like we’ve always worked well together – we play off each other.
Ian: Volunteering together actually works out better. Sometimes there may be a situation that one of us may be uncomfortable to face on our own but having someone else there to analyze and assess the situation is really helpful.
What is the inspiration behind your costumes?
Ian: I was given a few different costumes by various people. I volunteer through our church, one of members of the church was a talented seamstress, she then offered to make a costume for me. I gave her a template, which was my old costume, which wasn’t too fancy. I made a few requests of deeper pockets, a pocket with a heart, a few ruffles – typical clown attire.
Janet: We also have different headgear depending on the day. We have flashing headwear with lights, Christmas ones, Easter ones, birthday ones, and so on. We like to be reflective of what is going on during that season. We only dress differently with our headgear though. The rest of outfit stays the same.
What does a typical shift look like?
Janet: We stay half an hour to an hour in the Special Occasions room and then we go around to Union Terrace and Grand River Terrace. Every shift we bring various props. We have toys that wind, laughing toys, zoo animals, chickens, flashing glasses and many more. The majority of these props fit in a large pouch in our clowning outfits.
There’s a long story behind my rubber chickens. One of the reasons why we have them is because it’s also good physio for the patients when they squeeze them. We have so many toys and props in our bag, we’re just little kids at heart. We let the patients approach us, we never try to push ourselves to visit with patients.
Overall, what have been your favourite moments while volunteering?
Ian: I’ve received several of emails thanking me for what I’m doing. Some of them they, “I don’t know your name but to the Freeport Clown thank you so much for making my grandmother’s day” – or whomever their loved one may be in the hospital.
Even just walking through the courtyard, we brighten peoples’ faces even when we aren’t going for an intentional visit. Just brightening up someone’s day, whether it be a patient of visitor.
Janet: Yes, cheering people up is our biggest highlight but there is still one thing that I think of when I’m asked this question. We can cheer people up in different ways. Not only do our toys and props help us but our presence is a big factor. When the patients are smiling, so are their visitors.
How do you remain cautious about “clowning” around Freeport?
Ian: One of the most important things to note is that we aren’t just wandering around the hospital, we have to be able to read and assess the situation of whether or not it is an appropriate time to visit with a patient. That’s why we work well together.
Janet: We are very aware of those who are scared of clowns. For instance, if we are on the elevator we have to be cautious of being in a confined space with our costumes on.
What have you been able to take away from being a volunteer?
Ian: Giving your full, undivided attention is the greatest form of generosity. Paying attention to someone who is in need is always going to be satisfying for both people. Giving someone attention that is diversionary to their illness and seeing them smile is always a good feeling.
Janet: No matter what kind of mood you’re in when you walk through those two doors in the front, you know you’re going to leave with a smile on your face. Not only are the patients smiling, we’re the ones leaving with a smile.
We’re friendly visitors, so just being someone to be there for them for the sake of just being there makes patients feel supported.
Interview and photography by Amanda Paul
Amanda Paul is Grand River Hospital's volunteer correspondent. Amanda has volunteered at GRH's Freeport and KW campuses since 2012. She's passionate about telling the stories of her volunteer colleagues at the hospital.Learn more about Amanda and her role at GRH...