The art of feeling good: An interview with Melissa Holland

“Do you like mosquitoes?” Dr. Frog asks me in an over-the-top French accent. “Not really, why?” I reply. “We are having a mosquito barbecue later,” Frog deadpans.

The quip is just one of many dished out by Dr. Frog, who roams the corridors of St. Justine’s Children’s Hospital in Montreal along with a second clown-doctor named Dr. Oups. Dressed in a long white coat, accessorized with cowboy hat and boots, and wearing a bright red clown nose, Dr. Frog shuffles down the hallway looking to inject a lighthearted moment of humour into the day of the next person he meets.

Dr. Frog, aka Alexis Roy, is one of 26 clown-doctors who work with The Jovia Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs therapeutic clown programs in hospitals and healthcare facilities in Montreal and Quebec City. While in Montreal, I had the chance to speak with Jovia’s co-founder, Melissa Holland, about their work to spread joy and laughter amongst patients and their families.

Can you tell us a little about The Jovia Foundation?

MH: The Jovia Foundation is a non-profit organization that runs two therapeutic clown services: Dr Clown for children in paediatric facilities and Labelle Visite for the elderly in long-term care establishments. Our therapeutic clowns are professional artists who have extensive training in the art of clown, as well as psycho-social training to be able to work in healthcare.

Our clowns work in duo and interact with a list of referred patients. They always knock on the patient’s door and ask to come in, which gives power to the patient. The notion of empowerment is one of our main objectives, giving a passive patient the opportunity to have an effect on someone else often stimulates a new energy and sense of well-being.

What compelled you to start Jovia?

MH: In the summer of 1999, while I was living in Scotland, I happened to read a job description for a clown-doctor from a company called “Hearts and Minds”. I shared it with my mother and my best friend, and each of them said, “That’s your job!” Armed with their support and enthusiasm, I went through the audition and interview process and was one of six people to be hired for a six-month pilot-project, working as a clown-doctor in paediatric hospitals in Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, and Glasgow. I loved the work so much! I’d had dreams of being a performer, a famous Hollywood actress, and yet when I studied acting I found there was something missing for me. My Catholic education had done its work, creating a strong desire within me to serve others with my talents. While studying acting, I had studied clown and loved it. It was the most fun, creative, imaginative work I had ever done. But I never dreamed that I would become a clown. I didn’t want to work in the circus, nor at birthday parties, nor at the rodeo. And so life presented a new option – clowning for sick children in hospitals. I could be silly, stupid, vulnerable, and make sick children laugh, and get paid for it. I had indeed found my vocation.

In 2000, when my visa was up in Scotland and I had to move back home, I investigated if clown-doctors existed in Canada. They did! In Vancouver, there was Doc Willikers at the BC Children’s Hospital; Hubert at the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg; Bunky and Posy at Toronto Sickkids Hospital. But nothing in my home-town, Montreal. My Director in Scotland put me in touch with someone she knew who was interested in starting up a clown-doctor program in Windsor, Ontario. He in turn knew a clown teacher in Montreal, and he knew a clown who was doing the work as a volunteer, Olivier-Hugues Terreault. From my experience in Scotland, I knew this work was a profession, one that required training, skills, reflection, regular hours, and remuneration.

I eventually did meet Olivier, and to make a long story short, together we realized that we shared a similar vision. Within a year, we had written a business plan that won a start-up grant, clowned twice a month at a senior’s residence, secured funds from the Starlight Foundation to pay for us to work two days a week at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, and got our charitable status. One of our other co-founders, Germaine Gibara, was a prominent business woman and became the first president of our board. She was known as our “Fairy God-mother”. Our fourth co-founder, Florence Vinit, has a PhD in psychology and is our psycho-social director. Francine Côté was our first artistic director and all of our clowns come from her school of training. Slowly but surely, the team began to build.

The Jovia Foundation runs two programs: Dr Clown for children in paediatric hospitals, and Labelle Visite for the elderly in long-term care establishments (Photo by Isabelle Dubé)
The Jovia Foundation runs two programs: Dr Clown for children in paediatric hospitals, and Labelle Visite for the elderly in long-term care establishments (Photo by Isabelle Dubé)


What exactly does a therapeutic clown do?

MH: Firstly, it is important to understand the art of clown. The clown is a vulnerable figure who serves as a reflection of our humanity. The art-form is more about the art of being, than the art of doing. It is a quality of presence, with a simplicity and openness to all that the clown meets. Think Charlie Chaplin’s the Tramp, or Mr. Bean. The clown’s tools are his body and his emotions. Through them he is able to express anger, sadness, happiness, fear, relief, disappointment in a light way that allows the audience to laugh at him and, as a consequence, at ourselves. The clown helps us to not take ourselves too seriously and to enjoy a moment of lightness and laughter.

A therapeutic clown is a specially trained clown-artist and healthcare professional who works in collaboration with the hospital staff to improve the quality of life of patients. At Jovia, our therapeutic clowns always work in a duo, maximizing the play potential. The clowns always offer the choice to the patient to interact or not. Often, the objective of the visit is to empower the patient, by creating a game or situation where the patient is the one with the solution. For long-term patients relationships are created, senses of humour are developed, favourite games, songs and stories are played, sung and told. The imagination, laughter and joy that comes from these visits helps the patient be in the present moment, be creative and become more resilient, which goes a long way in the healing process.

Melissa Holland, aka Dr. Fifi, clowning around with a patient (Photo by Paul Bourgeault)
Melissa Holland, aka Dr. Fifi, clowning around with a patient (Photo by Paul Bourgeault)


From your experience, what is it about laughter and joy that’s so beneficial to patients and their families?

MH: There are many studies that have been done on the benefits of laughter and humour on healing. There are physiological benefits, such as endorphins that are released that can seriously reduce stress and pain, as well as emotional benefits of sharing a laugh with family members and hospital staff in an atmosphere that is anything but funny. These moments of laughter, in turn, help to build resilience to the suffering that is being experienced.

This was brought home to me the first year I was clowning at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. My partner (Dr. l’Air de rien) and I (Dr. Fifi) visited Camillo, a four-year-old boy on the Oncology ward of the Children’s Hospital. He had an immunosuppressed condition, and so was in isolation. We learned how to clown through the window, we developed games where he was in control: scaring us by yelling “boo !”, funny face competitions, car races that became clown races, singing Shania Twain songs. We saw him over an eight-month period and really got to know his whole family. Unfortunately, his condition gradually deteriorated. His family asked us to come see him when he was in intensive care. He was pretty weak at that point, he had an oxygen mask on, and when he saw the clowns at the window of his room, he mouthed the word “Boo!” The clowns jumped and fell to the floor as though they had really been scared,and Camillo had a big smile on his face. His father said it was his last smile before he died a few days later. When my clown partner and I went to the funeral, his father thanked us for all the joy that we had brought to Camillo and to the family. And that’s when I realized that those few moments of play, and I’m talking maybe 10 or 15 minutes a week, had a lasting effect that made their time of darkness lighter and brought them hope and comfort.

Laughter and humour can benefit the healing process and help to build resilience in patients (Photo by Daniel Héon)
Laughter and humour can benefit the healing process and help to build resilience in patients (Photo by Daniel Héon)


Your therapeutic clowns work with children in paediatric hospitals, as well as seniors who are no longer independent. Can you tell us a little about the similarities and differences between the younger and older patients that you serve?

MH: With the elder residents that we serve, the main difference is they are not in a hospital setting, but in an institution that has become their home. So rather than have the parody of the doctor, our clowns dress in their Sunday best as though they were visiting their grandparents. The premise is that we are all members of an extended family, the Labelle family, and the residents like to keep track of the different stories between us. They appreciate that we are well dressed, our costumes are in the style of the 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s, and so are reminiscent of their youth. Many comment on our hats or crinolines or saddle shoes. We work mostly with residents with dementia, and a similarity with children is that they are in the present moment. They are also very close to their emotions, as children and clowns are, and are able to read a situation emotionally, which is why the communication can work on a completely different level. It is no longer cognitive but affective. They are also fountains of love, and delight in being able to be affectionate, giving hugs and kisses and many have lots of advice to give us.

Another main difference is that with the elderly, we acknowledge the sexes. Men are men and women are women. We are polite and romantic, men clowns greet women with a kiss on the hand. Women clowns offer their hands to men. Our clown characters are concerned with dating and getting married, and the seniors love to give us all kinds of advice related to these matters.

Memorably, we asked one of our regulars: “Within a married couple whose job it is to make food?” He is quite hard of hearing and looked at us curiously and answered : “Both! Some like to make love before dinner, some after dinner.” His daughter who was visiting at the time, yelled “Food, daddy. Make food, not make love. Make food!” “Oh! That’s the woman’s job!” We all laughed. The daughter prompted him about his spaghetti sauce, and he proudly told us the ingredients. His daughter couldn’t believe it, he had trouble remembering his wife’s name, but he could recite the ingredients of his spaghetti sauce.

Labelle Visite serves seniors who are no longer independent and living in residence or long-term care facilities (Photo by Patrick Palmer)
Labelle Visite serves seniors who are no longer independent and living in residence or long-term care facilities (Photo by Patrick Palmer)


And what about the people who work as therapeutic clowns – what do they take away from the experience? How does it change or impact them?

MH: It’s hard for me to say specifically, as I think it affects all of them differently. What I am struck by most is their commitment to the work. Our company is thirteen years old. Four out of the original seven members are still part of the company. And two of those that have left are doing the work elsewhere. As a non-profit, we are very vulnerable to the state of the economy, relying on donations to cover the cost of our services. The last two years in particular have been very hard financially and the clowns are having to look elsewhere for steadier work, and they are doing so reluctantly. We don’t want them to go, but the market is not easy at the moment. So I am very touched by their desire to do this work. I think for many of them it is rewarding and meaningful and has brought them a lot of richness and understanding about compassion. At one point, I was training a new clown and after two hours of clowning with adults from all walks of life and in all conditions she said, “It’s not hard is it? You just have to love them.”

If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your work with Jovia?

MH: I’d say the biggest thing I’ve learned so far is how resilient the human spirit is. It amazes me how open and available people who are sick can be. There is a strength in being weak, Jean Vanier talks about that. You have no guard, nothing to hide, it’s like you come back to yourself in a certain sense and there is a desire to be in contact with the other. I have been amazed by the openness and generosity of people who are facing very dark times of suffering. They let us into their circle and inevitably we leave changed. Once, there was a woman we met in the emergency room, behind a curtain, lying on a stretcher, her face and arms covered with bruises. When we poked our clown noses around the corner she smiled widely and said, “Oh I am SO happy that you have come”. We had never met this woman before, and she went on to say that what we were doing was so important, that our parents must be very proud of us. She talked about how they used to sing and dance in the ghetto and later in the camps, when the guards weren’t looking, to keep their spirits up. It was then that we noticed the tattooed number on her arm, under the bruise. Dr. Fifi said, “You have a beautiful spirit”. The woman said, “For this I thank God and forgiveness.” It is moments like these where I feel like I am a witness to great beauty and goodness.

Melissa Holland in character as Dr. Fifi (Photo by Isabelle Dubé)
Melissa Holland in character as Dr. Fifi (Photo by Isabelle Dubé)


Your commitment to making a difference is truly inspiring. What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their own community, and wants to make it a reality?

MH: Work hard and ask for help! Look for the right resources, write a business plan, tell everyone you know what you are trying to do. If the idea is ripe and it meets a need, then people, help, and resources will appear to make the idea happen.

Finally, how can people get involved with or help support Jovia?

MH: Our biggest need right now is funding. We have talented, dedicated therapeutic clowns who have little to no work at the moment because of a lack of funding. Due to the economy, we cannot do as many patient visits as we would like. Where we used to visit children twice a week, now we visit them only once a week. Some of our elderly see us only once a month instead of once a week. Our approach is relationship-based, and weekly visits are necessary to strengthen that relationship and have a greater and longer-lasting impact. If you are interested in donating please go to our website.

Melissa Holland is co-founder of The Jovia Foundation. She also works regularly in hospitals as a therapeutic clown, as Dr. Fifi and Chérie Labelle. Visit Jovia’s website for more information, or to help support the organization.