This retiree travels the world as a clown and loves it when ‘children’s faces light up’

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Jed Selter isn’t worried about running out of money in retirement. But shortages of red noses and balloons? That’s a different story. As the head of Caring Clowns International, which he coordinates out of his home in Washington state’s Puget Sound area, he orders clown noses in lots of 600 and balloons by the tens of thousands. 

“When I know of an organization that’s going overseas, I’ll give them 200 to 500 noses to take with them. Oh my gosh, the clown noses, they are a huge hit,” says Selter, a 79-year-old retired Boeing executive whose clown name is Duffy. The balloons get used up whenever his troupe participates in an event or an overseas trip. 

Read: Volunteers cuddle babies in intensive care: ‘To feel their finger curl around yours is an amazing connection.’

“One thing I’m very proud of as a charitable organization is that our overhead is about 6% to 7%, because we don’t own facilities or have employees. We require clowns to pay dues of $75 a year, which helps pay for overhead for a P.O. box and balloons and noses,” says Selter. 

Any money they raise goes to grants to organizations that help children. “We’ve now given away $527,000 to about 65 nonprofits,” says Selter, money that has been split between developing countries and the U.S. since the organization started in 2002. 

Selter got started clowning through Boeing
which had its own clown troupe as an employee volunteer opportunity. When he retired at 57, Selter was invited on a volunteer trip to Vietnam and decided that being a clown was how he wanted to spend his retirement. So he joined forces with a few other clowns and started Caring Clowns International. Over the years, the group has traveled across the U.S., as well as to countries in South America, Africa and Asia.

Selter created a training manual for clowning that covers the basics of costumes, face paint and skills like making balloon animals. He offers a two-weekend clown school when he gets enough interest, and he is also willing to coach and provide assistance to anyone who asks. While most clown troupes are local, there are several national organizations like Selter’s, including Clowns without Borders and Hearts and Noses. One way to find clown volunteer opportunities is to go to a charity search platform like GuideStar and plug in a keyword. 

Read: Where are the retirees? The retiree volunteer rate is depressingly low. Here’s how to change it.

In-person activities were curtailed during the pandemic, but Selter’s crew — a contingent of about 10 clowns across the U.S., half of whom are retirees — is now back at it in force. “It takes quite a commitment, as with anything people do,” he says. “But we’ve had a fair amount of success with students, and we mentor them and they learn.” 

Selter gets the most joy out of “seeing children’s faces light up when we’re making balloon animals and just playing with them. It’s delicious.” But perhaps his most meaningful experience was when he brought his group to a school for blind children in Vietnam. They couldn’t see the performance, but they still thought it was fabulous, he says: The kids touched his red nose and big shoes, and felt his face to get a sense of the huge smile on his face. “The connection was just amazing,” Selter says. “I found myself writing my experiences on tissues, on napkins, on my arm, as we were clowning. Afterward, I wrote a book about my experience.” 

Read more about retirement and volunteering:

Tying up loose ends: Crafters finish projects for people who have lost a loved one

Teaching kids to read: this 90-year-old hopes to make ‘an impression that could last forever’

These much-loved volunteers swoop in to rescue animals in communities struck by disasters

‘We all need purpose when we wake up in the morning’: Finding meaning in retirement leads to happiness and health

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