"Clown therapists" make Italian quake kids smile again

L’AQUILA, Italy (Reuters) - A clown with a red rubber nose may be an unexpected sight in an otherwise somber camp for Italian earthquake survivors, but Francis Calsolaro says his monkeying around for newly homeless kids is serious.

A child smiles as she runs in a tent camp where earthquake victims reside in Aquila April 7, 2009. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

Waving around a fluffy pink duster and falling over in mock dismay while playing with giggling children, “Francis the clown” says coaxing laughter out of kids left homeless by Monday’s quake is more effective than any traditional therapy.

“This is not funny business, it’s actually very serious,” said Calsolaro, dressed in a baggy pin-striped suit, a colorful jacket and a hat with a daisy stuck in it.

“People don’t need someone sitting high up there telling them how to deal with sadness. I genuinely want the children to think I am dumb and stupid.”

Another 10 to 50 similar clown therapists from his group are expected to arrive soon to cheer up the homeless living in large blue tents in open air camps in around L’Aquila, says Calsolaro, who traveled down from Milan soon after hearing of the quake.

The quake, Italy’s worst in 30 years, has so far killed some 250 people and destroyed large parts of 26 towns and villages in a rugged mountainous region east of Rome.

In the camp, another group of clowns dressed in multicolored, mismatched coats and baggy pants danced with each other, blew soap bubbles, handed out balloons and played games with a group of laughing children.

“When we came here, the camp was very silent, kids just quietly playing with each other,” said Federica Marinacci, who goes by the clown name of “Nocciolina” (peanut). “But when they saw us, they all gathered around us and began laughing.”

Fearful mothers also broke into a smile once they saw their children were laughing again after the terror of the quake, Marinacci said.

More traditional psychologists had also pitched up a tent in the camp as they set about helping grief-stricken survivors and the homeless with post-traumatic stress, but for now the clown therapists appeared to have stolen the show.

“We’re just trying to bring the children back to the life that they’ve always had,” said Marinacci, as she played with a child holding a orange balloon twisted into the shape of a dog as amused adults looked on.