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Kay Jensen advocates clowning around

by Steve Phillips, Record contributing writer
(Photo by Grayson West / The Park Record)
20100118_022747_Kay-Jensen

Kay Jensen says there’s just not enough clowning around in hospitals these days, and she’s trying to change that. For her, clowning around is a noble calling. As "Tapioca" the clown, she brings joy and laughter to the hearts of patients at the new hospital in Park City and at care centers in Oakley and Heber. Since moving to Park City five years ago, she’s devoted hundred of hours to making sick and injured people laugh. Her passion recently earned her a "Bold and Courageous" Award from the Park City Women’s Center for Spirituality. Now she’s on a mission to recruit and train more hospital clowns in the Park City area.

Jensen was born and grew up in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. She was a cheerleader in high school and had a talent for drama, appearing in many school plays. "I was basically a quiet kid but I had this kind of performance side," she says.

She started working at the local hospital when she was 15 years old and enjoyed it. "Back then I got to work more with the patients and do a lot of different things," recalls Jensen. "I always had a ‘nurse Nancy’ aspect to my personality and had planned to go into nursing, but I got distracted."

Jensen confesses she’s always suffered from wanderlust. In 1956, fresh out of high school and eager to escape Sleepy Eye, she set off for Washington, D.C., in search of a job. It came in the form of secretarial work with the U.S. Navy Department. Two years later she was off on a new adventure. "I decided to go out to California with a friend and find work," she explains. "We stayed with her mother in Orange County, before there was a Disneyland, until we found jobs."

Over the next 20 years Jensen worked, married and had two children. The family enjoyed winter vacations to Utah and skied Park City in the 1970s. After her husband’s untimely death, Jensen found solace at a church-sponsored singles group. She met Dennis there and they were a match. The couple married in 1984, creating a combined family with five children.

The newlyweds promptly began a search for new directions in their lives, a popular pastime in 1980s southern California. They found what they were looking for at a school for massage therapy. "It was a good fit for us,"says Jensen. "It offered instant gratification and a chance to make a difference in people’s lives. I don’t like to say we healed anybody, but we sure made them feel better."

The couple began a new chapter in 1987 when they moved to Tennessee and took jobs as massage therapists at a hotel in Nashville. Two years later they went into business for themselves.

In 1999 they moved their successful business back west, settling in Eagle, Idaho, near Boise. Jensen says that’s where the clowning around got started. "I’d seen the movie ‘Patch Adams’ about a doctor turned hospital clown and had thought about trying it," says Jensen. "They were offering a clown class at a local hospital in Boise. It sounded like fun and a good way to serve the community. When I put on a clown outfit I become another person. Tapioca, my clown persona, is a lot funnier and has a much better reputation than I do," she jokes.

After a quarter-century as massage therapists, Jensen and her husband retired to Park City in 2005. "My daughter and son by my first marriage both live here and I’ve always liked the town since I skied here in the 70s," she says. "I like the healthy atmosphere here. Most people in town are involved in some kind of activity."

Tapioca found a home here too and was soon clowning around at area hospitals and retirement care centers.

Jensen harkens back to her teenage years and her "nurse Nancy" personality to explain her new avocation. "I like the hospital atmosphere and bringing some cheer to people who are sick. I definitely believe in laughter as a healing mechanism. When you see people’s faces light up and maybe they laugh a little bit when they’re not feeling very well, that’s great."

It’s not always easy, says Jensen. "When I deal with people who are terminal, I just try to make them laugh. Gosh, if you can make the days they have left a little better, it’s a gift I think."

She says she always feels different after a day at the hospital. "I leave with my cup full. I get so much more out of it than I can possibly give."

Jensen wants to share the laughter by offering free clown classes to Park City area residents in late January and February. "Right now we only have three hospital clowns serving the new hospital and two care centers in Oakley and Heber and that’s just not enough. It would be nice to have somebody going to the hospital more than one day a week," she says.

If you’re interested in catching Jensen’s act, she’s at the new hospital, clowning around every Wednesday. She’d love to fit you with a big red nose and sign you up for clown classes. No, you don’t have to sick to see the clowns.

VITAL STATISTICS

  • Favorite things to do: cross country skiing, walking, sewing, reading
  • Favorite foods: Mexican, Italian
  • Favorite author: Barbara Kingsolver [author of Pigs in Heaven]
  • Animal companions: Sugar, a 13-year-old cat

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