SIKESTON — The clowns' antics draw laughs from the audience. With a twist here and a turn there, they make a balloon creation that brings bright smiles to young children.
But behind the funny faces and comical clothes, there is a serious purpose. The goal of each and every SEMO Shriner Clown is to raise money for the Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis.
Jeff Conley, who serves as director of the Sikeston SEMO Shriner Clowns, said he always thought of himself as a bit of clown. But it wasn't until after he became a Mason, completed his three degrees to become a Master Mason then was inducted as a Shriner, did he officially became a member of the local Shriner Clowns.
It was then he discovered the serious mission behind the fun.
"The first thing you do is tour the Shriners Hospital and see these kids," Conley said. "That gives you a meaning for what you are doing — you are doing it for the kids."
Whether it's parades, public events or even birthday parties, every event is used as an opportunity to spread the word and raise money for the Shriners Hospitals and the young patients served in St. Louis. Through the hospital, children up to age 18 with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries or cleft lips and palates are eligible for care and receive all services, regardless of the patients' ability to pay.
The Sikeston-area Masons have been clowning around 50 years, members said.
Seven other clowns usually join Conley at events. There are also four or five older clowns who participate when they can, he said.
It is the older members who pass along the clowning skills to the younger ones. Conley said Ken Stallings taught him how to put on his clown makeup.
Others provided tips on how to twist the balloons into animals, swords and more. They explained what to do if a child, or occasionally an adult, is afraid of clowns.
As one Shriner clown retires, he will often hand down his costumes to a younger member.
Conley has created three characters from the clown suits he has. Because of his drywall business, he learned how to walk on stilts, so he is now creating a fourth costume to incorporate those.
The SEMO Shriner Clowns also ride on minibikes passing out candy during area parades or will take out their "jitney," a decorated bus.
"It's learn as you go," Conley said. "There are no classes. Your class is when you go out."
The good work of the Shriner Hospital and its patients are part of their heartfelt message, too, veteran Shriner Clown Johnnie Dixon said.
"All of our kids who go to the hospital, whether it is for a $100 procedure or a $1 million procedure, those families aren't out a dime," Dixon said. "There is no expense to the family."
Dixon pointed out whether the Shriners are performing as clowns or working in their cooking trailer, all proceeds will go to the Shriners Hospital.
"To help children — it is as good a reason as you can find," he said. "And we have fun while we are doing the job of making money for the hospital."
Dixon said many children in southeast Missouri have benefited from the services at the Shriners Hospital. The local chapter has sponsored clinics screenings in Sikeston.
Both men agreed the payoff from their efforts on behalf of the Shriners Hospital can't be calculated in dollars. Conley noted the brotherhood as being involved with the Shriners and Masons wherever he goes.
Dixon said his payoff often comes during one of the parades. "When a kid asks, 'Can I give a hug?,' and I say 'Why?' and they tell you 'Because I'm a Shriner kid.' Well, it makes you feel all bubbly inside," he said.