A self-described clown for his entire life, Puyallup Police Department patrol officer Rob Kearney recently took his clown skills on the road with the Gesundheit Institute, a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Patch Adams.
Kearney recently returned from his fourth trip to Guatemala with the organization.
“What Patch Adams does, it’s called Humanitarian Clowning,” Kearney said. “It’s not the red wig with the face paint, but you put a red nose on and you dress really silly and you just go and make people laugh and take their mind off of the rough times their going through.”
Four years ago, Kearney saw an ad for a spring break trip to Guatemala. Even though he had never been to Guatemala, or had met anyone from the group, Kearney did, however, see the movie ‘Patch Adams’ years ago, and decided to take a leap of faith and join in on the clowning fun.
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“I realized it on the first trip, but I’ve been a clown my whole life,” he said.
On the trips, Kearney and the other clowns make stops at children’s hospitals, orphanages, adult clinics, group homes and psychological wards in hospitals.
“We were even locked in with patients that were categorized as violent,” he said. “But we didn’t see it.”
The Gesundheit Institute focuses a lot on medical care, but Kearney brought along his 18 years of police training, and nine with the Puyallup Police Department on the trip.
“There are some things that are just instinctive by now,” he said. “(On the trips) I’ve helped out with security assessment on things. I’m formally an EMT, so I have a little bit more than basic first aid knowledge, so I’ve been able to help out with that.”
While most would think making the transition from police officer to clown is difficult, Kearney insists it’s a way of treating people.
“If you ask anyone I work with, I’m a prankster and I joke around a lot,” he said. “I use humor in law enforcement, too, because it’s a good way to deal with people in crisis. Humor is a good way to pull things back to normal and get them out of their crisis mode.”
The outward appearance of a police officer and a clown are completely different, as Kearney typically dresses completely crazy in clown mode, he says, but the humanitarian part of the trips and his job are very similar.
At one point of Kearney’s trip, his police instinct kicked right in. There were a couple of orderlies dragging a woman into what looked like a holding cell, where they just threw a mat on the floor, put her on the mat and covered her with a blanket.
“They were going to lock her in the cell,” he said. “I thought that I needed to see what was going on, so I went into the cell with them, and she was upset because her son had been murdered and there was no way to figure out who did it. It was a crime that was never going to be solved.”
Right then, Kearney put himself into the woman’s place, who had just lost her son and would most likely never receive closure. The police officer did what he could to help comfort her.
“I just laid down on the floor with her and held her hand and talked to her in Spanish for a little while just so she knew she wasn’t alone,” he said.
While seeing people living in adverse conditions on his trip, seeing the smiles that he and his fellow clowns bring to the people makes it all worth it.
“We see the change in attitudes of the kids at the orphanages that we go to; they’re sad, they’re feeling abandoned then we come in and we’re crazy and we’re silly,” he said. “We’re blowing up balloons and playing catch, or teaching them how to do craft stuff where they’re running around playing games. Then they have just beaming and brilliant smiles on their faces when we’re leaving. We leave them in a better place than when we arrived.”
Since returning from his trips, the 47-year-old looks at his world a little differently.
“I always come back and I’m completely recharged,” he said. “Some of the places that we go, the conditions are horrible and then I come back, I don’t complain about anything. I don’t take things for granted, because we have so much here. I was dealing with people that were sleeping on the floor and if they got one hot meal a day, that was good.”