Clowning to Raise Money in Iowa

"It's an alternative form of fundraising," Lehman says. Clowning is a way to bring in crowds, and it's also an opportunity to get safety messages across - especially to little kids.

When the Adel Fire Department wanted a thermal imaging camera - a machine that can detect human bodies trapped inside smoke-filled buildings - the volunteer firefighters had to host their own fundraisers to come up with the $13,000 to pay for it.

A thermal imager can tell firefighters when there's fire still smoldering deep inside walls, even after they think they've got it all extinguished.

Most fire departments don't have budgets for special equipment like that. In fact, out of Iowa's 875 fire departments, 825 of them are staffed entirely by volunteers.

As far as Marion Valero-Lehman can tell, the Adel Fire Department is relatively lucky: It may have to raise money for special tools, but in some communities, volunteer firefighters don't even have the basic equipment they need to protect themselves when they enter burning buildings.

Firefighters need a way to raise money, and Lehman has an idea: They can make their money by performing as clowns.

Now, don't laugh.

On second thought, laugh if you want to.

In some states, such as Colorado, Texas and California, fire clowns do a decent business by hiring themselves out as entertainment, performing sketches and making balloon animals.

"It's an alternative form of fundraising," Lehman says. Clowning is a way to bring in crowds, and it's also an opportunity to get safety messages across - especially to little kids.

During emergencies, kids tend to think of firefighters as scary monsters when they see big men in heavy gear coming out of fires and walking toward them.

Firefighters need a way to combat that image so children will trust them in emergencies, Lehman figures. And firefighters are also always looking for new ways to get across safety messages, such as how to touch a door to check for heat.

"Little kids don't think like everybody else," she says. In a world where Santa Claus and the Fairy Godmother are reality, maybe it makes good sense to get your safety advice from a clown.

Fire clowns can come up with all sorts of safety skits, turning concepts like Stop, Drop and Roll into games that kids might just remember in a pinch.

"It's kind of a proactive thing," says Lehman, a captain on the Adel Fire Department. "You don't know how many lives you save." Send in the clowns

Lehman's fascination with clowns began when she was a kid growing up in New York.

"I was lucky because my dad was a cop, and he knew all these security people," she says. That meant tickets to Madison Square Garden, seeing the Ringling Brothers Circus in the days of pre-circus freak shows, with sword swallowers and bearded ladies.

Lehman remembers being mesmerized by Emmett Kelly, creator of the famous tramp clown Weary Willy, who could warm up the crowd of 20,000 people all by himself.

He would use nothing more than pie tins to get the different sides of the audience to clap, competing to see which side could make the greatest noise.

"He had the power to command an audience without saying a word," Lehman says. She watched one man using the power of love to focus a crowd of 20,000, making people forget themselves for that instant. "If you looked, everybody was smiling."

At the end of his act, Kelly would sweep the spotlight into a tiny pile on the ground, pick it up with a dustpan, and put it into his pocket.

And that's when the circus officially began.

Who could top drama like that?

"I wanted to be in the circus, but my dad was a cop, so, like, no way," Lehman remembers.

Instead, she grew up, went to college, got degrees in agriculture and animal science (living in New York, of all places), then came to the Midwest to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But Lehman never quite got over that early fascination with clowns. And she never really had to.

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