Clowning Around with Social Therapy


Hugh Polk, our resident psychiatrist/social therapist, has a great gig. Once a month he leads a group made up of 25 clowns from the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program. It’s part of the Circus’s community outreach program and it’s been in operation for 25 years. The clowns’ job is to go into hospitals every week to visit seriously ill children, bringing gaiety and laughter and joy into their lives at a time when they’re hurting, terrified, lonely or bored (sometimes all at once). Hugh’s job is to support the clowns to do this deeply rewarding, often unbearably painful work with the kids and their families. Sometimes a clown arrives only to learn that a child she’s known for months has died since her last visit; another child may be too sick to smile; sometimes a parent is too distraught to join in a game.

“I love the clowns,” Hugh says. “They’re wonderful people, compassionate and down-to-earth. In our social therapy group the conversation is very serious and open about the emotional difficulties involved in doing the work that they do…and it’s always punctuated by the hilarious stories and jokes that they tell and the hi-jinks they perform. There’s often tears, and there’s always laughter. And yes, there’s usually a red nose or two lurking somewhere.”