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From Poulsbo, Caring Clowns group spreads smiles worldwide
POULSBO — In a Peruvian courtyard a woman wept, mourning the terminal diagnosis handed that day, like a cruel sentencing, to her 9-year-old child.
A clown peered from behind a pillar, catching the woman's eye. His eyebrows danced mischievously before he retreated behind the pillar, beginning a quiet game of hide-and-seek between strangers. And the woman laughed.
"For that little moment, it was some sense of relief for her," recalled Jed Selter, president and executive director of Caring Clowns International. When Selter's face is painted and his bubbly toed shoes laced he is known as Duffy the Clown, a master of balloon hats and comical gags.
Selter operates Caring Clowns International out of his home in Poulsbo, where he manages a team of 30 clowns from across the Puget Sound, the United States and Europe. The group raises funds for other non-profits that help to improve the lives of kids.
Selter, 67, who is retired, has made the organization his life's priority. He buys red noses by the thousands and recently returned from 10 days in Lima, Peru, during which he and three other clowns juggled and joked for children in need of medical attention and their families.
"People always talk about a downward spiral of depression. This is just an upward spiral of love and caring," Selter said. "It comes because none of us are in it for ourselves."
Selter founded Caring Clowns in 2002 after clowning for orphans and kids maimed by Agent Orange in Vietnam. It's the only clowning organization of its kind in the world, he said.
Caring Clowns has given more than $176,000 to various non-profits since its inception, and its clowns attend upwards of 70 events both locally and abroad each year. Selter hopes to raise $86,000 over the next two years to give away a total of $250,000 by the end of 2012, the organization's 10th anniversary.
Caring Clowns has visited 18 countries and is in the process of opening two new chapters, one in Chicago and another in London.
Caring Clowns maintains an overhead cost of 9 to 15 percent, nearly half the typical non-profit overhead cost of 33 percent, Selter said. Many of his fellow clowns live in the Puget Sound region, and they have supported North Kitsap Fishline, along with a family services organization in Maple Valley. The group has donated to charities around the country and in developing nations.
Caring Clowns also offers a clown class each year.
"The absolutely only thing it takes is to have the heart and compassion for people," Selter said. "It is an opportunity to get into a different skin and to be as goofy as you want to as a different person, and to express love unabashedly with other people."
Selter began clowning in 1974 as a way to volunteer with children. He joined the Boeing Clown Club while working security for the company, and created a Keystone Cop clown persona complete with plastic billy club. In 2000 he became Duffy, an alter-ego with goofy T-shirts, wildly neon hair and tiny brimmed hats that sit askew atop his head. Duffy's glasses have no lenses, a part of his schtick to make children in burn units and cancer wards laugh. Selter has never taken a clowning course, instead learning to make balloon animals from books and picking up ideas from other performers.
"When you connect with people eye to eye, heart to heart, it just happens," he said. "The facade of the clowns allows you to do these things, it allows you to get close to people."
Anyone can become a clown, or can volunteer with Caring Clowns International to help further its cause. Donations are also accepted at caringclownsinternational.org.
Selter hopes to raise and donate $5 million for various kids organizations around the world. As the organization expands its connections, he also hopes to inspire a spirit of volunteerism in kids.
"We're not in it for anything other than to completely give," he said.