Starburst the Clown makes regular appearances at events like Monday evening's serving of The Welcome Table at the First United Methodist Church in Vermillion.
And, each time she ventures out among local folk, she greets young and old alike with a hug, or a hand-made balloon animal, or a chance to reach into her always present bag of Starburst candies.
Along with a smile.
Monday, it helped that Starburst's sunny countenance could be credited, in part, to face paint. It was a bittersweet time.
Jacquie Lonning, Starburst's alter ego, is leaving Vermillion for Portland, OR, to pursue a master's degree.
That means, of course, that Starburst will be traveling to Oregon, too, after nearly a decade of providing smiles and a positive attitude at countless public functions in the local community.
Instead of serving as time for Starburst to greet people, Monday's Welcome Table provided those who have regularly counted on seeing her cheery face a chance to say goodbye.
Vermillion has benefited from Jacquie's employment at USD since the early 1990s.
During that time, countless people have been the beneficiary after she decided to make her dream of clowning around become true.
"I'm a Caring Clown. I was down at the hospital at Sioux City, IA, and then I started volunteering up here at The Welcome Table," she said.
The local happenings that have been made just a bit more special by Starburst's presence over the years seem endless. Besides her visits to The Welcome Table, she's been counted on to add a positive atmosphere to Celebrate Vermillion, held annually on New Year's Eve. She's helped the Vermillion Lions Club sell pancakes. Starburst has entertained people of all ages at the Sanford Vermillion Medical Center's ice cream socials, the Vermillion PTA's carnivals, and a variety of functions on the USD campus.
"And sometimes, I just walk around Hy-Vee or Jones' (Food Store) as Starburst," Jacquie said, "just to bring some smiles around town. I've always been interested in random acts of kindness, and was interested in clowning since I was in college."
Not long after Jacquie moved to Vermillion, a friend told her that St. Luke's Hospital in Sioux City was offering a class for clowns for the hospital.
It was an opportunity that she couldn't refuse. "I took the classes, and I just loved it. I started clowning at the hospital," Jacquie said.
The long drive to Sioux City eventually compelled her to look for opportunities closer to Vermillion where Starburst could make a positive difference.
"So, I started making visits to the hospital here in town, and making nursing home visits, and just kind of anywhere that needed a smile or a laugh or something like that," Jacquie said. "The Welcome Table is a favorite place of mine, so I started visiting that quite a bit, and I mastered, somehow, the making of balloon animals, and then I started recruiting other clowns that wanted to get involved."
Jacquie began working on Starburst's appearance while attending clown school. Starburst is not a loud, raucous, seltzer-squirting entertainer clomping around in size 20 shoes.
"Since I'm a hospital clown, they really want to make sure that you don't have the big wigs or the big nose, because that would be scary to people that are not feeling so well," she said. "It's a really light look – I'm just basically laid back. Sometimes people just need to talk, and they're more comfortable talking to a character that doesn't look like a human. It's just a way to break the ice."
After adopting a look thanks to a "just right" application of paint to her face, Starburst dons a costume made of gently worn clothes she purchases at The Civic Council in Vermillion.
"A roommate of mine made this costume for me," Jacquie said. "I only go to non-profit events; I don't do any birthday parties or anything like that. A couple of times, people have paid for some of the supplies for me, and that's helped some."
Starburst has, over the years, played an important role in USD classrooms.
"I've done some guest lectures at the university – I've talked to pre-doctors about humor therapy, and I have a whole doctor routine that I go into. I talk about how positive stress can be good for making the body heal.
"Laughter doesn't necessarily cure people," Jacquie said, "but it can make them feel better faster. And sometimes it's just not the patients; it's the people who are coming in to visit the patients. It's family and friends who struggle seeing people who they love that are hurting, that are sick."
Doctors and nurses receive a boost when they see a clown wandering the hallways of a hospital ward, too.
"Sometimes, they just need a smile. They deal with a lot of traumatic issues throughout the day," she said, "and they just need something to relieve them, and be given something to laugh about."
After Jacquie first mastered the practice of being an effective caring clown, she often spent a great deal of time in the cancer ward at St. Luke's Hospital.
"Not so much for the kids, either," she said. "It was more for the elderly who were just getting out of surgery. There were not a lot of kids who were there all of the time."
It's easy, Jacquie said, for people to associate Starburst with visits mainly to hospitalized children.
"It's not just kids that need a smile sometimes, or somebody to talk to," she said. "Even going into places, like a hospice, where people are in a coma, and to sit with those patients and visit with them – they can't see you, but just being there for them and holding their hand – and when a friend of the patient comes in to visit, it's a little different atmosphere than if you just walk into a room where somebody you love is sick. When there is somebody there who cares about them, it's a little different."
Jacquie will begin graduate studies in service learning and leadership once she gets settled in her new home in Portland. Starburst is making the move, too.
"This has been such a huge part of my life for the past seven years that I don't think I can leave it behind," she said. "I've met so many people. There are a lot of young kids who I've known since they were little babies, and many of them don't realize who my 'human me' is, and yet they know me by my 'human me' and don't even realize I'm also Starburst."
Jacquie finds that each time she puts on her colorful makeup and wildly-patterned clothing, more than just her appearance is transformed.
"I'm a pretty shy person, and I think the clowning really has opened me up to start conversations with people," she said. "I wasn't the type of person who could just walk up to anyone and start talking to him or her, but with the clowning, you kind of have to do that.
"It's helped me personally to be able to do that," Jacquie said. "I'm a big klutz, too, and I would normally get embarrassed by that, and this has just added a totally different spin to it. Now I can turn around and laugh at it."
During her time in Vermillion, Starburst has talked to 4-H'ers, given children's sermons at local churches where's she's preached the importance of random acts of kindness, and talked to school students about character building.
Jacquie reasons that Starburst's message will be important to the new acquaintances she will soon be making in Oregon.
"There are so many ways that she's been a part of my life. I don't think I could ever leave her behind," she said, "so she's going to be coming along with me."