Finding My Nose, Part 3

The following column was written by Dan Roberts as part of a series published in the Jakarta Globe Newspaper in 2012. This is part 3 of the column series; Read Part 1 & Part 2.

After leaving Chicago, I took a short detour through the northeastern United States to work with America’s premier youth circus, Circus Smirkus. Getting away from the hustle-and-bustle of the big city was a nice retreat to begin planning and focusing for Indonesia. I organized several small fundraisers with performer buddies, raised enough money to buy a plane ticket and cover some basic costs for the expedition and boarded the plane back to the place I had grown up.

When I first returned to Indonesia after a six year hiatus, things were different than they were when I left. I was different. I arrived home to this scattered gathering of islands knowing that I wanted to help. I had an idea of what I thought the children of Indonesia needed, and I was set on giving them just that! I spent three months touring through the city under the auspices of the international comic relief organization, Clowns Without Borders USA.

I performed for thousands of children and their families in poor villages, orphanages, homeless shelters and hospitals. It was wonderful to learn that children in Indonesia were basically the same as children in America. Yes, they were more poor and they looked different, but the characteristics that make you innately childlike are the same in any culture or country.

It was during one of my first village visits to a North Jakarta fishing village called Cilincing that I discovered the name of my expedition and future organization. Cilincing was my first sight at the poverty behind the curtains. It was a face of poverty that you don’t see driving in your car or stopping at traffic lights. I was shocked and a little scared. The smell alone was overwhelming. I tried to hide my feelings of discomfort and focus on what I was there for: To perform and bring joy to children in need of a laugh.

During my first trip through the labyrinth of make shift houses with recycled tin rooftops and bamboo walls to the performance space, I was greeted with scowls, stares and some sarcastic “hey mister” attitudes. Watching up to dodge the low hanging awnings and watching down to avoid stepping on the dead rats or piles of human waste, all I could think was, “How am I supposed to be funny?”

Once I’d seen the location where I was supposed to perform, I returned to the car to get into my minimal clown gear. I put on the oversized clown shoes loaned to me by a good friend back in Chicago, tied my overgrown hair in a ponytail and glued the clown nose to my face. As I tried to remember which small alley connected to the next, ducking and often colliding into the low hanging rooftops, I noticed that people’s attitudes towards me had changed. I was no longer this oversized foreigner staring at them as though they were in a zoo, but now I was a clown! Old men literally rolled off their benches in fits of laughter as they all pointed and screamed, “hidung merah! Wah, hidung merah!” My Indonesian was a little rusty, but I could tell by the tones in their laughter that whatever “hidung merah” was, it was a good thing.

The show I put on was different than anything I’d ever done in the past. In the corner of a family’s shanty home, with the heat seeping through the bamboo grass walls, I began to goof and joke. The room was jam-packed. Children were climbing on top of each other in the back to take turns looking at this goofy foreigner with a red nose. After the show, the children took turns learning how to spin a plastic plate or throw and catch a few scarves. And when I couldn’t handle the heat any longer, we packed up and headed home.

On the way home, I asked my friend, who’d brought me to the village, what “hidung merah” meant. She smiled and replied, “red nose.” I learned that day that a red nose might just be what brought us as people together. A red nose is not Indonesian or American. It’s not from a wealthy family or a poor family. It’s just red. And if we all wear red noses, then we are all the same. Everything that made us different didn’t matter. We were just a bunch of clowns. Everything began to make sense and my program had found its name.

During this 10-week expedition, I also began teaching informal circus lessons to the children who attended my shows. My philosophy, which I adapted from a combination of CircEsteem’s mission and Clowns Without Borders, was to bring the children on a journey far away from their actual lives for a few hours; teach them to be superheroes before they had to return to their unfair lives. To call these children at risk might not do justice to their actual situations. Yes, they are at risk: At risk of child labor, at risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, at risk of having their human rights to food, clean water and education being denied to them. But their situation goes beyond the standard western understanding of “at risk.” These children were in need of so much, I didn’t know where to begin. So we laughed and smiled together. We created positive memories among the plethora of negative ones.

I was proud of my work in Indonesia and I loved watching the faces on the children and their families as they laughed at my clown acts, jumped for joy at their successful spinning of a plate and joked with their friends wearing the red noses that I’d passed out. But somehow, I couldn’t help but feel like I was 16 again, sitting in my car, only reaching my hand out to give them a few coins and then driving off.

As I began to say goodbye to the children I’d worked with, I realized something that I found profound. Giving them emotional relief was great — comic relief tours are important. But, if I really wanted to help these children, it was going to take more than a 10-week performance expedition. After spending time getting to know the children of this city, I found myself left with an uncontrollable desire to do more. I knew it would be hard, but when asked why I wanted to help so badly, my response was always, “Because I’m young and I can. If I can help and I don’t, who is going to?”

And it was with those thoughts I returned home to begin fund-raising for what I would later call the Red Nose Foundation.

Finding My Nose, Part 1

Finding My Nose, Part 2

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Finding My Nose, Part 2

The following column was written by Dan Roberts as part of a series published in the Jakarta Globe Newspaper in 2012. You can read Part 1 of this series here.

As a teenager and with a group of friends, we found a way to combat poverty that made sense for us. Fast forward a few years to university: I’d graduated high school with average grades and made some slightly above average achievements in extra curricular activities, but I was most proud about what my band had done with the profits from our music concerts. I felt as though we’d actually made a difference in the world. And that felt good. That being said, no one in their freshman year of college really cared about hearing your stories of donating a few hundred bucks to an orphanage, so these moments slowly faded into memories. 

I quickly joined the rest of my peers in obsession with what “show” we’d get cast in (did I mention I went to theater school?) and whose fake ID looked the most original to buy beer on the weekend. I got into theater because I liked the attention you got on stage. It made me feel good about myself and I wanted to be a movie star. Although, for some reason you weren’t supposed to admit that, so I told people “I wanted to make a decent living working in the arts,” but really, I wanted to be a movie star.

It wasn’t long after I began “crafting my art” that a feeling of emptiness started creeping up. Something was missing in my life, but I didn’t know what. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the “It” I’d witnessed in Indonesia. Why was the government not doing anything about the “It” problem? Why weren’t all the wealthy people doing something to solve “It”?

Why wasn’t I doing something about “It”?

Shortly after “It” started to consume my conscience, I learned about another person trying to do his part in changing the world.

Paul Miller was a clown. He was trying to help kids in inner city Chicago succeed by teaching them self-esteem through circus. It just so happened that my school was teaching circus for a semester to teach actors how to perform without their mouths. My lust for performance was revived. When the unit was over, my professor suggested I get a hold of his friend, Paul Miller. An upper classman from my university took me to Paul’s school — it was then that the first volume of my life was complete and the second began to write itself.

Paul’s organization was called CircEsteem and they operated out of a community center in a predominately African immigrant neighborhood. My first day of volunteering for Paul’s organization was, at very least, enlightening. There were groups of children from opposite sides of the city and opposite sides of the economic spectrum working together as a team, as partners and most importantly, as friends. Paul had really “tough” kids wearing red noses and practicing clown falls. What was this amazing vehicle of reaching children that he’d created? Why wasn’t everyone spreading peace throughout the world with circus?

The haze of amazement was abruptly shattered towards the end of the class, when a 14-year old girl burst into fury, yelling obscenities and storming out of the gym. Paul immediately chased after her. Shocked and silenced having never seen a child treat their teacher in that way before, a colleague leaned over and told me not to worry about it, “She does that all the time. She didn’t want to walk on the big balance ball.”

I watched as Paul chased after her, acknowledged her anger and encouraged her to reach her full potential. It was that moment that the magic of social circus made sense to me. Paul wasn’t talking to her about walking on a balance ball, he was talking to her about life through the veil of a circus trick. The next four years, I was deeply and completely devoted to this program. I watched as that angry, scared and confused young girl grew into a strong, intelligent and powerful young woman. There were many other success stories that I witnessed at Paul’s CircEsteem. However, it was during this journey that I also learned one of the hardest lessons when working with at-risk children.

That lesson is that they are actually at risk. No matter how hard you try, the hours, days, weeks and months that you devote to them, you will fail some of the time. Some children will get sucked into the backwards system, some will make bad choices and some won’t survive because of it. We lost many children along the road at CircEsteem, some left the program and had their lives taken away from them. But, despite the pain, we feel when we lose some, the hope is that the children you help outnumber the children you can’t help. And even more so, the hope is that while some of the kids might never reach their full potential and thrive into positive contributing citizens, at least you’ve made an impact in their lives positively, even if temporarily.

As soon as I discovered social circus, I forgot about my dreams of being a movie star. I only went to class because I knew my folks wouldn’t have allowed me to quit. But sitting in Shakespearean Literature and Ensemble Singing class gave me time to dream about how I was going to change the world. I wanted to build a social circus, just like CircEsteem and the many other wonderful programs I was introduced to, but in Indonesia.

I believed that this might be the answer to that looming “It.” I watched kids in America change their lives because of learning how to juggle, maybe I could help children in Indonesia do the same thing. I spent several years learning everything I could learn from Paul and his growing circus program until eventually it was time for me to take my show on the road.

Finding My Nose, Part 1

Finding My Nose, Part 3

Finding My Nose, Part 1

The following column was written by Dan Roberts as part of a series published in the Jakarta Globe Newspaper in 2012.

My name is Dan Roberts and I’m the founder and executive director of Red Nose Foundation, an arts and education outreach program to empower underprivileged youth through the circus. The journey taken developing the Red Nose Foundation has not always been easy, but we continue to stride forward with the assumption and hope that we are helping to better our community, our nation, our world. One little piece, one child at a time. And this is my story:

Life has a way of changing things; sometimes for the worse. But the hope is that more often than not, it’s for the better. I believe that it is through that change that we as individuals, communities, or dare I say as a society, develop the strength to progress.

As an expatriate child growing up in Indonesia, there weren’t a lot of things to complain about. I pretty much got what I wanted. I was fortunate: Drum sets and big-screen TVs, chauffeurs and family cooks, school trips to the Great Wall of China and senior trips to that tropical paradise, Bali! So maybe fortunate is an understatement. Very fortunate.

But I was one of the lucky ones. Despite my family’s affluence, my parents insisted that their children not completely lose sight of reality. It was through their generosity to the people around us that I learned the most important lesson of all. Our job as members of humanity must be to take care of each other. Taking care of each other certainly has a different meaning to everyone, and indeed it should.

For my father, it was putting our house staff’s children through school and university. For my mother, it was visiting the same orphanage once a week for six years to spend time with children who needed to be loved. It was inviting the guys from my high school rock band to come down and eat dinner with our family. It was actually caring about the people in our world, with no expectation of a return on our “investment” — no expectation at all. Simply caring because we all need to be cared for sometimes.

When you are young, I think you don’t notice “It.” But, coming of age in one of Southeast Asia’s largest cities, the other “It” begins to creep up on you. When “It” is a 5-year-old girl knocking on your car window asking for a few coins, or a blind woman stumbling in between the cars at a crowded intersection or when “It” is a man who lost his legs in what was no doubt a horrific accident, and drags his body along the curb with a cup tucked in his belt, “It” begins to be difficult to ignore.

“It” is Indonesia’s poverty.

We often don’t know how to combat these feelings of hopeless compassion for the poor around us, so we keep small cups of coins in our cars and try to pass them out at every stoplight or traffic jam. This is how we care. And it might help. Those poor people on the outside of the glass might eat a meal that day, they might buy medicine for their sick spouse and they might put their children back in school. Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is that the man or woman lounging on the bench just out of reach, but not out of sight, will take the coins that we passed out and leave the beggars with none.

If you watch closely, it’s like smoke and fire. Where there is an unbathed child tapping on her tambourine, there is someone counting how many coins she receives and taking his cut. So what do you do? If the child doesn’t meet their quota, they might not be fed, or possibly even beaten. But should you continue to perpetuate the cycle of enabling these children to be abused? It was this poverty that left me confused, sad and a little angry. What could I do, I was only 16!

Around the same time I started to notice poverty, I was introduced to a young man who had traveled a similar path as me; an expat child studying in luxury at an international school. Emmanuel had left college early to come back to Indonesia and open an orphanage for some street kids in his old neighborhood. He changed the path that he thought his life was supposed to take, and devoted himself toward putting a roof over the heads of a few street kids. His devotion and dedication toward the less fortunate in his life was inspiring to me at 16. He was someone like me, and look at what he had accomplished.

Like I mentioned before, I played in a rock band (although a scream band might be a better way to describe it, but that’s beside the point). My school had a tradition of putting on big music concerts, and when it was my turn in the pecking order to organize these events, I started donating our funds to Emmanuel and his orphans. The amount of funds that we raised was small, possibly insignificant, but it was what we could do. It was our way of taking care of each other. It was our way of combating poverty in a way that made sense for us as teenagers.

Finding My Nose, Part 2

Finding My Nose, Part 3