By Martha Nodar
Patrick Ungashick, Michael Rieger, Vern Vincent and Lee White are long-standing head clowns in the Distinguished Clowns Corps—a fundraising program comprised of local, volunteer executives whose efforts benefit Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
An icon in the annual Children’s Christmas Parade, the Distinguished Clowns can be found mingling with the crowd wearing white pancake makeup and oddly colored hair. In addition to their time, each of them donates $1,500 to the hospital every year. The proceeds help families unable to shoulder the cost of medical treatment at the hospital, said hospital public relations coordinator Meaghan Flynn.
Financial generosity toward the hospital and camaraderie among themselves sets the Distinguish Clowns apart from other volunteer groups
“We are really a bunch of clowns in every sense of the word,” Rieger said. “When we get together, we laugh a lot. It gets pretty silly pretty fast.”
Faithful to a tradition pioneered almost 20 years ago by entrepreneur Neil Cameron, president of Ogilvy & Mather South Advertising, the head clowns organize formal and informal recruiting events at their homes during the year to attract new participants to the program. The goal, Rieger said, is to encourage other community leaders to come aboard and put their business savvy, networking skills and enthusiasm into building up the volunteer program.
“We are meeting in September to invite rookies [novice clowns] from last year to map out a strategy for fall,” Rieger said. “Then, we’ll have our regular recruiting session in October to welcome new clowns into the program. We depend on word-of-mouth. I usually ask everyone I meet if they want to be a clown in a parade. Many people don’t believe we do this.”
Ungashick said all of the preparations during the year are put to the test on the first Saturday in December.
“Our day begins around 7 a.m., when we arrive at the hospital to visit the young patients,” Ungashick said. “We bring small gifts and a little sticker that reads: ‘I met a clown today.’ This is an immensely worthy cause and participating in this event is very special for the children and all of us.”
After completing their rounds at the hospital the clowns head for downtown Atlanta where they partake in the holiday parade.
“We work the crowds and are highly interactive with the children,” Ungashick said. “We each have our own routine, and I’m always pleasantly surprised at how the children react to us considering the distractions they have with today’s technology.”
While Ungashick said he is fairly easy to recognize in the crowd because of his red wig, which he found at a disco-themed place in Las Vegas, White, an 11-year veteran of the program said he usually blends in with other clowns also wearing green wigs.
“Actually, once I’m made up I become anonymous, and I find it very liberating,” White said. “My gag consists of taking a digital photo of myself in costume; then, I go around showing the photo to the children and I ask them if they have seen this missing clown.”
Routines such as these are appreciated by Olivia, 14, a frequent patient at the hospital who said she “adores the clowns’ jokes and funny characters.”
Rieger said Olivia represents the reason the Distinguished Clowns continue to invest their efforts year after year.
“Once you do it the first time, you are hooked,” Rieger said.