When Debra Sneeder puts on her makeup and clothes and drives to work, she gets a lot of stares.
Debra "Debo the Clown" Sneeder does a magic trick for Kenny McKinney, 7, and other patients as she performs at the Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center.
Photo by C. Samantha McKevie
That's because the 43-year-old's work outfit includes yellow pigtails beneath an undersize hat, a red nose and extra-long shoes - the uniform of Debo the Clown.
"Who wants to see a magic trick?" she asked patients, their friends and families recently at the Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center.
Mrs. Sneeder makes gloves shrink, color appear on the pages of a black-and-white book, and small sponge balls disappear or double in a participant's closed hand.
For Mrs. Sneeder, being a professional clown is more than doing a job she loves - it's a family tradition.
"I'm following in my father's footsteps," she said. Her father, Tommy "El-bo the Clown" Connell, performed at fund-raisers, birthday parties and other special events in Augusta and across Georgia in the 1970s and '80s.
"My older sister, Dee-Dee the Clown, clowned here in Augusta for a little while and occasionally does now in Florida. My younger sister tried it once, but I'm the only one who still does it regularly," Mrs. Sneeder said.
As a child, she rode with her father in his clown wagon, a decoratively painted 1960s bread truck with "Just Clowning Around" written on the back. She said she learned clowning by watching her father as he performed.
"It really is an art. With all the juggling and the magic, balloon sculpturing, face-painting and knowing how to handle the children, it's an art," she said. "My dad taught me all this. I really looked up to him."
About 19 years ago, Mr. Connell had bypass heart surgery, and the clown wagon was sitting in the yard rusting. Mrs. Sneeder said she decided to put it back on the road.
"I just took over the wagon and he was really excited. Being proud of me helped him to feel better," Mrs. Sneeder said. "I wanted to continue his legacy, and those were some big shoes to fill - those clown shoes."
Mrs. Sneeder attended clowning seminars across the Southeast for years. Clowning, she said, is a serious job.
"There's a clown code of ethics. My face is patented, and so is the red-white-and-blue material I wear, which belonged to my father," she said.
She has won numerous awards, including first place in a statewide clown competition in 1986.
"Winning first place in the state was a big honor," Mrs. Sneeder said. "Spread a little kindness and share a smile - that's what I do."
Mrs. Sneeder said that she had other jobs over the years but that clowning is the one she prefers.
That career was put on hold in 2001 when her father and lifelong mentor died.
Mrs. Sneeder said she missed doing what she most enjoyed - making people laugh - so she returned to clowning.
"He would always say, 'When you see the twinkle in the eye of the aged, and the wonder of a small child, when you make them happy, then you feel touched,"' she said.
Since she resumed her career, she has been doing performances much like the one at MCG.
Kristen Dennis, a child life specialist at MCG, said she was constantly amused during Mrs. Sneeder's performance.
"We try to give the kids something fun while they're here," she said.
Temeka Glover, 12, received a smiley-face ring after one of Mrs. Sneeder's tricks. She said she had grown a little bored in her hospital room and the show was fun.
"I liked all those fun magic tricks," she said.
Seven-year-old Kenny McKinney, of Fort Stewart, Ga., took part in one of the tricks and made a glove grow large and small.
"I like to shake that magic wand," Kenny said.
For Mrs. Sneeder, it is all in a day's work.
"That's my job, making people happy. My main job is to create laughter, not tears," she said.
She and her husband, Craig Sneeder, have three grown children and one grandchild.
"He would always say, 'When you see the twinkle in the eye of the aged, and the wonder of a small child, when you make them happy, then you feel touched,"' - Debra Sneeder, talking about her father, Tommy "El-bo the Clown" Connell
Reach C. Samantha McKevie at (706) 823-3552 or email@example.com.
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