Tim Cunningham ’00 is a registered nurse, a marathon runner, a former actor, and, most importantly, a clown. More specifically, he directs the United States chapter of Clowns Without Borders (CWB). CWB, a not-for-profit organization, was founded with a mission to change people’s lives by bringing joy to crisis-stricken areas of the world, including Haiti, Mexico, South Africa, Sudan, Palestine and Colombia, as well as many locations domestically. Cunningham hardly calls it work, as he enjoys traveling across the globe to spread happiness through performance.
Cunningham has been working with Clowns without Borders since 2003, starting off as a volunteer for a few years, then joining the board. He has served as executive director for the past two years.
Originally from Waynesboro, Va., Cunningham has lived and worked in Northern California, Charlottesville, Va., and New York City. In addition to his work with CWB, he is also an avid runner, not just for his own physical health, but also for the emotional well-being of children around the world. Cunningham feels that kids are often forgotten in the wake of a crisis, and this fuels his desire to help people everywhere. He runs ultramarathons, barefoot, to raise money for kids in crisis situations both in the United States and abroad. Cunningham has run over 400 miles barefoot for the purpose of raising money for the CWB initiative, Miles of Smiles.
“Even in the toughest circumstances, people never really lose the ability to laugh,” said Cunningham. “The work we do is very much community- and family-oriented, bringing people together. There are crises, wars, disasters, genocide; these horrible things that happen to human beings, whether by other human beings or by nature. These are acts that separate human beings. And what we do, in a gentle way, is bring people together.”
Slapstick humor is a way in which CWB shows its audience how to be resilient. A clown might fall down in dramatic fashion, but hop quickly back up to continue the show. An important meaning resides in the clown’s eagerness to rise. It suggests that we can choose to get back up in the face of adversity, even when we know that there could be more, or worse, stuff coming. The clowning shows kids in crises how to get back up again and again, rather than allowing them to think that there is no way to get out of hard times.
Laughter and smiling are a part of the universal language of humor. Cunningham hopes to spread happiness to the places he travels and to as many people as he can. “We don’t preach or teach a political or religious ideaology,” he said. “Our only agenda is laughter.”