Posted: Sunday, March 3rd 2013 at 7:10am
Putting on a happy face to teach safety
By Rob Moore Editor
Habersham County Public Safety Clowns include, front from left, Sparkie, Smash, AnE, Wrinkles, and Pah-earl. (Photo/Rob Moore)
MT. AIRY – “Be a clown, be a clown – all the world loves a clown.” One group of northeast Georgia public safety personnel is taking those Cole Porter lyrics to heart.
But this group of clowns is not just about the laughter and amusement value. Instead, they have a deeper purpose.
“We teach fire safety, seatbelt safety, and bullying skits, to name a few,” says Lt. Phillip Kimbrell of Cornelia Fire Department, also known as Wrinkles.
Kimbrell went to an alternative teaching methods class at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth in the latter half of 2000.
He and other early clowns began going into schools in Habersham County in early 2001.
“During the show, we use clowns as well as puppets to connect with the kids and make learning fun,” Kimbrell says. “I have been somehow made boss clown over the years, making sure the shows are set up, and that the sound equipment, stage, and clowns get to the show.”
The local clowning program, now in its second decade, continues to reach out to children in Habersham County’s eight elementary schools.
“Some of our seasoned clowns include Joel Norton (Smash), Jason Garrett (Sparkie), Paula Kimbrell with her puppet Dixie, and me,” Kimbrell says.
Norton, who works for Habersham EMS, says the program is beneficial.
“This is something that I enjoy doing for the kids,” Norton says. “If one child takes what they learn from one of our shows and helps themselves or others, then all the time and effort is totally worth it.”
In early 2012, the Habersham clown troupe expanded to include two Habersham County E-9-1-1 dispatchers.
“Our two newest clowns are Jennifer Moulder (AnE) and Kristen Kowalsky (Pah-earl),” Kimbrell says. “The other four of us taught the basics of clowning and they took off with it. This went back to having people from Habersham Dispatch, as well as Cornelia and Habersham County fire departments, Habersham EMS, and Cornelia Police Department. We all work well together.”
Moulder and Kowalsky say they were accepted immediately by their peers and clowning mentors.
“My favorite aspect of public safety clowning is the heart behind the show,” Moulder says. “Phillip, Joel, and Jason have been long dedicated to this program and its importance. That group of guys did not think twice about the work it would take to bring Kristen and myself on board. We are like family.”
Moulder and Kowalsky recognize the significance of the program, and that what they’re doing potentially can save lives.
“The program is incredibly important to our community, because our children must be taught safety,” Moulder says. “If you can excite just one child to wear their seatbelt, dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, or find an exit out of a burning house, we have been immeasurably successfully.”
Kowalsky particularly likes the group’s newest skit that tackles the tough issue of bullying, especially in a school setting. The clowns actually bring in the local police chief or other law enforcement officer during that part of the program to emphasize the significance of the problem.
Norton agrees with the value of the program.
“I feel as though we have a great group of clowns that love and cherish the time they spend together teaching all the children in our community,” Norton says. “I have been in public safety for 20 years and I can say that teaching fire safety and injury prevention through clowning is the best thing I have ever done.”
But there’s more to public safety clowning than just teaching through skits.
“It takes a couple of hours to just apply the makeup and put on my costume, and that doesn't include the maintenance prep the night before,” Moulder says. “It takes about an hour and a half for all of us to set up the stage and the electrical equipment. Not to mention how long it takes to deconstruct everything and to ‘de-clown.’ You don't just simply wash the makeup off. You must apply oil and soap, and you must scrub! I tend to find white patches all afternoon even though I thought I was successful.”
Like Moulder, Kowalsky finds preparation to be a time-consuming process, but one she feels is worth it.
“It takes me about two hours to get ready, to get the makeup on, to get my clown outfit on,” Kowalsky says.
All the clowns say their dedication to the group is because of the desired end result, which is a reduction in childhood injuries and deaths.
“I’m real proud of the group we have,” Kimbrell says. “We spend so much time together clowning, getting ready, etc., that they’re more like family.”
In addition to school presentations, the clowns also participate in community events. The group was involved in the Habersham E-9-1-1 Children’s Fun Fest that drew more than 5,000 people to Clarkesville in October, as well as the Habersham County Christmas Parade in Cornelia.
“To be a clown in a parade is quite exciting,” Moulder says. “All the faces of the little kids – and adults – are priceless. It’s amazing, especially when you look straight at someone who you have known your entire life, and they are clueless who you are.”
Kimbrell says it would be impossible to get to all Habersham County elementary schools during Fire Safety Month in October, so the group tries to do one to two shows per month throughout the school year.
“I think that what’s good with the program so far is now we’re getting out to where all the schools want us to come and teach the children, and it’s fun because we’re clowns – we look silly,” Kowalsky says. “The kids enjoy it, but we also have a good time. We get them to dance and get them familiar with public safety.”
Like his clown alter ego, Garrett doesn’t say a lot about the program, but says he believes it teaches children – often without them realizing they are learning how to be safer.
Department heads support the clown program because they realize its educational value, the clowns say. Still, the group doesn’t take advantage of that support.
“The time we spend doing these shows is volunteered time as we set 90 percent of the shows up on our days off, Kimbrell says.
The Habersham County Public Safety Clowns also may be available for school presentations in neighboring counties. For more information, contact Kimbrell at Cornelia Fire Department, (706) 499-2343.
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