February 7, 2002

Holly Adams Speaks On Clowning Around

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In the intimate setting of the Founders Room at Anabel Taylor Hall last night, Holly Adams shared her experiences from working in Russia with physician and clown Patch Adams with a small gathering of about 30 community members.

Holly Adams travelled to the other side of the northern hemisphere in November and stayed for 16 days, bringing joy to Russian orphans, cancer patients, children, and other people that she and her clown companions met.

Adams described clowning not as something reserved only for when one is wearing a red nose; clowning is about “breaking down the walls between people” that prevent them from communicating.

“There’s a deep well of subterranean laughter [in the Russian people],” she said.

Adams is a student of Empire State College, working towards her master’s degree. She currently lives in Ithaca.

The presentation followed a lecture by Patch Adams, a physician and clown, on Sunday at the James Law Auditorium at the Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine that was sponsored by the Family and Children’s Service of Ithaca. Holly Adams has no relation to Patch Adams, whom she says she met “a few years ago” in Binghamton; they began a correspondence that eventually led to this trip.

Lee Riddell, director of Community Wellnet, an nonprofit organization dedicated to building communication between healing arts professionals and the community, welcomed the audience. Anke Wessels, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy (CRESP) at Cornell, introduced Adams at yesterday’s presentation.

Community Wellnet is affiliated with CRESP, and both organizations collaborated to help sponsor her trip to Russia. “Not until Holly came back from Russia did I realize what a phenomenal thing we’ve done [to have paid for her trip],” said Wessels.

After the introduction, Adams entered the room in full clown attire, talking through a kazoo, and delighting audience members as she tried on their scarves or offered them her kazoo.

When she reached the front of the room, Adams pulled off her red foam nose and began to share her views, her experiences, and even some slides from her journey.

She described her trip and began to speak about the history of Russian deaths in World War II, and the incredible resilience of the people of St. Petersburg. She described how orphans are currently considered “second-class citizens,” denied access to the life of a normal Russian citizen and confined to government orphan housing for their entire lives.

The group traveling with Patch Adams worked closely with an organization called Maria’s Children to help rehabilitate children in the Russian orphan system and work to make positive changes in their treatment. Maria’s Children supports itself in part by the sale of art created by the children, of which Adams showed slides.

Adams showed a slide in which she has her arm was around one young man, whom she revealed to have been a “pet,” living on the end of a chain and sexually abused until “liberated” at the age of twelve. Adams was able to make him smile and laugh.

“I felt very, very blessed to be able to go there and to be impacted, and to impact,” she said.

After hearing Adams talk about such an account, Fay Gougakis, Ithaca resident and audience member, questioned Adams about the Russian citizens’ awareness of the situation of orphans. Gougakis explained later that she had been sent to an orphanage-like boarding school as a child.

“I have a real connection with these kids,” said Gougakis.

Holly Adams responded to such frustrations with her positive outlook on both clowning and activism.

“What we can do now…is give love to someone who doesn’t know what it is,” she said. “We cannot let ourselves become vanquished by our own sorrow.”

The other slides she showed included visits to children’s hospitals. Some slides pictured her playing balloon volleyball with children who were physically bolted to their beds to prevent movement, for medical reasons that she said were sometimes unclear.

Yet Adams and her colleagues brought out laughter in the children.

“They had so much joy. They were laughing so hard I was afraid they would hurt themselves,” she said.

She also connected with citizens that she saw in the street or in hotels. “[The Russian people] love the opportunity to stop being so serious,” she said.

The audience reacted emotionally to Adams’ stories and images. They asked questions about the conditions of the orphan housing and expressed concern about the methods of treatment in the hospitals.

However, Adams stressed that she chooses not to expend energy on rage, but rather to continue to spread joy in the face of situations such as the ones she witnessed firsthand.

“You don’t have to be outrageous to find the clown in yourself,” she said.

Wessels concluded the presentation by calling Adams a “hero.”

Despite having been discontented at the situation of Russian orphans, Gougakis agreed. “I’m thrilled that I came. I learned a lot,” she said.

Archived article by Emily Adelman