Centre grad helped clown troupe bring message of hope to Haiti

Kristi Hughes, center, was joined by fellow Clowns Without Borders volunteers Michael O'Neill and Erin Crites during one of the group's shows in Haiti.
Kristi Hughes, center, was joined by fellow Clowns Without Borders volunteers Michael O'Neill and Erin Crites during one of the group's shows in Haiti.

"Mommy" is the only name Kristi Hughes knows for the older woman.

As Hughes and three other volunteers from Clowns Without Borders performed their best shtick at a camp in Haiti, the woman sat in the audience, a purple scarf wrapped around her, bug-eyed sunglasses masking her eyes.

Then, somehow, the Centre College grad and the old woman with no home grasped hands and started to dance. For what seemed like a very long time but was really only moments, there was no shortage of water or food or shelter or threat of cholera.

Just joy.

"It was like no one else in the world existed," Hughes said. "It just really touched me. It changed my life."

It's hard to say where laughter falls on the roster of human needs. It's certain that there was none when an earthquake shook Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, and millions who had little to begin with lost everything.

In the year that followed, a great wave of humanitarian aid has supplied food, water, tarps, medical supplies, school books, blankets, soap and all manner of basic needs. Hughes, as a member of an international troupe of performers called Clowns Without Borders, has tried to tend to the battered spirits of survivors.

The group's slogan is "No Child Without a Smile."

When Hughes received an e-mail message looking for volunteer clowns who spoke French to go to Haiti, she responded readily. But she was skeptical whether she might do any good.

The Nicholasville native is nothing if not serious about being a clown. Initially interested in acting, she caught the clowning bug after a class at Centre. There was something about making people laugh that appealed to her.

After graduating in 1998, she worked for two years in corporate advertising in San Francisco, but clowning called. She left the States to attend École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, an internationally renowned school in Paris. She went on to travel the world with the acclaimed Cirque du Soleil, then she joined TheatreFragile, a troupe based in Berlin. She soon will return to TheatreFragile, which performs documentary theater in public spaces.

"Making people laugh is just the greatest feeling in the world," Hughes said.

Still, she worried before the Haiti trip. Shouldn't she be doing more? Laughter, she wondered, "is it enough to do when you see so many other needs?"

Those needs were apparent when Hughes, 35, landed in Haiti on Oct. 10. Like most people, she was aware of the devastation. But she was unprepared to see it. There was mile after mile of ruins and millions living in despair.

Any strip of clear land in a city seemed to be claimed by squatters with new "homes" made of tarps stretched on sticks.

"The rubble," she said, "you don't get used to it. You just can't believe that it just keeps going."

The troupe paired with an aid organization already on the ground that helped with logistics and transportation. Even getting to a show could take three or four hours. The venues were often circles of cleared dirt. The clowns would round up the audience, a la the Pied Piper, by walking through the settlement encouraging people to come see what the group of entertainers was all about.

They did 30 shows in 18 days, reaching more than 8,000 people. They sang and danced and performed some silly tricks. The aid organization asked them to emphasize the need for hand- washing to fight germs, which the troupe somehow turned into an infectious, crowd-pleasing chant.

Among the sea of faces, a few stood out. A little boy simply held onto one of Hughes' fingers as she talked to the crowd, then he pointed silently to Hughes when his sister arrived, as is if to say, "Look at what I found roaming around in the streets."

Then there was "Mommy," the woman who made Hughes really see the value in clowning around.

The audience wasn't suddenly transported to a better place. The shortages of food and water and the threat of disease didn't go away, she said.

But, "we are bringing something different into their lives," Hughes said. "We are bringing them hope."