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Two alumnae help families in Haiti laugh again after the January earthquake

Clowns Without Borders volunteer Deven Sisler '02, <br>left, dances for a crowd of cheering children <br>in Haiti in March 2009 while fellow volunteer, Olivia Lehrman, supports Leah Abel on her shoulders. <br>Photo by Amélie Grysole.
Clowns Without Borders volunteer Deven Sisler '02,
left, dances for a crowd of cheering children
in Haiti in March 2009 while fellow volunteer, Olivia Lehrman, supports Leah Abel on her shoulders.
Photo by Amélie Grysole.

The children were delighted when the clowns arrived at the hospitals in Haiti last month, but some adults were taken aback. They needed food, water, medicine — not jokes and stilt-walking and soap bubbles.

But the performers — all volunteers with the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Clowns Without Borders, directed by Dianna Hahn ’03 — won over even the most skeptical audience members. Donning colorful clothes, funny hats and red noses, the clowns elicited screams of laughter from hundreds of people who hadn’t had much to smile about since the earthquake that devastated the island nation on Jan. 12.

“Nurses and doctors would tell us after, ‘We haven’t seen people laugh before this’ (since the earthquake),” says Leah Abel, who traveled with the group to Haiti in 2009 and 2010. “It’s fantastic to know you can give something.”

Abel and fellow volunteer Deven Sisler ’02 spoke at the College in April during a series of talks about the earthquake and recovery efforts. Sisler, who went to Haiti last year and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, said Clowns Without Borders strives to use laughter to help communities deal with stress in the aftermath of wars, natural disasters and other crises.

“We try to reach as many people as we can wherever we go,” Sisler said. “A community goes through a trauma together, then (experiences) something of joy together.”

The shows, which are free, take place in refugee camps and orphanages as well as more spontaneous locations. In Haiti last year, Sisler said one performance started off “with 20 kids following us up a hill, Pied Piper-style.” By the end of the show, she said, 500 people surrounded the clowns in a slum in Port-au-Prince.

“That’s the way we prefer it — (each show is) very for the community, anyone can come see it,” Abel added.

Because they travel all over the world, volunteers, who are professional performers, must use humor that crosses cultural lines and language barriers. Clowns Without Borders routines are almost entirely nonverbal, using slapstick as well as juggling, partner acrobatics, stilts and other physical comedy acts that have universal appeal. For a few minutes or even a few hours, their audience can temporarily forget their pain and grief, and just laugh.

“After each show people come up and say … ‘thank you for giving us that relief,’” Abel said. “We give them a chance to escape.”

-Phoebe Hall

For more information visit or contact Hahn at

Learn more about recent College events that benefitted the ongoing recovery effort in Haiti.

April 26, 2010