Laughter Unlimited luncheon celebrates ‘humor therapy’

Laughter Unlimited clowns surround Wendy Hopkins on the Hyatt stage. Photos by Norman Schimmel

Joan Leonard conceded she never had thought of Circus Sarasota as anything but a producer of circus acts

That all changed on Valentine’s Day this year, she told an audience of almost 400 people May 8 at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota, during the 2012 Laughter Unlimited Luncheon.

As the program administrator of Sailor Circus, she said she had been asked to help 60 volunteers of Circus Sarasota — which had adopted Sailor Circus in October 2011 — to put on a show for all the nonprofit groups served by Laughter Unlimited, one of the circus’ programs.

Joan Leonard talks of the program's impact.

Not knowing at all what to expect, Leonard said, she watched as more than 60 buses arrived on the grounds, brimming with guests. Lots of people were in wheelchairs, she added, much to her surprise.

Then, as the show unfolded, she said, she found herself having an epiphany: “These [guests] were ecstatic. … It was clearly evident, the life-changing impact our clowns have.”

Instead of “Laughter Unlimited,” the program should be called “Love Unlimited,” Leonard added.

“It was truly the best Valentine’s Day I have had in my 50 years,” she said. “I was convinced that this was the right organization to be part of.”

Wendy Hopkins, former vice president of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, told the audience that Pedro Reis, co-founder and CEO of Circus Sarasota, came to her about 15 years ago with an idea, “a dream of keeping the circus arts alive” through what Hopkins called “one of the most innovating and life-affirming programs” she’d ever seen.

Laughter Unlimited was established essentially to provide “humor therapy,” to help improve the lives of people in nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living facilities, Hopkins explained. Its troupe of clowns visits more than 70 facilities in three counties on a regular basis, she pointed out. “It provides physical and emotional stimulation to residents …”

Skip Land, Jennifer Mitchell and Billy Bob Steinberg

The clowns interact with every single person who attends one of their programs, Hopkins continued. Sing-alongs are one means of getting the guests involved, she added, describing an elderly couple she had seen, “holding hands and nodding along to the music.”

She added that even the guests who seem most reluctant to participate at the outset end up joining in on the fun.

During one recent Laughter Unlimited visit, Hopkins said, she watched a woman in a wheelchair who seemed “oblivious to the program. … Then I saw her toe tapping.”

The woman eventually even reached out to one of the clowns, Hopkins said. “This really seemed like magic to me.”

She pointed out, “The clowns are constantly challenging themselves to understand the clients,” adding, “We are so lucky to have this program in our community.”

Reis and his wife, Dolly Jacobs-Reis, co-founder and associate director of Circus Sarasota, offered “a big thank you” to everyone attending the sixth annual luncheon May 8. The first event had 75 people in the audience, Pedro Reis said. This year, 385 attendees had registered.

“A lot of people know we are the circus,” Dolly Jacobs-Reis said, “but a lot of people don’t know what we do in the community year-round.”

The clowns of Laughter Unlimited, she added, “are more than just makeup with a big red nose. … They have hearts of gold.”

And those clowns mean so much to people in nursing homes and hospitals who “are lonely … and don’t have visitors,” she said.

Scott Hinckley, chief development director for Circus Sarasota, told the audience that the organization had raised $30,000 that day for Laughter Unlimited, before asking for any donations, thanks to the generosity of sponsors and sustaining gifts. “That’s a lot of clown noses,” he added, drawing laughter.

It costs about $1,000 for five visits to one facility a month for five years, Hinckley said. Contributions of all sizes are welcome to keep the program at work in the community.

For more information about Laughter Unlimited, visit