“Clowning is a great outlet. You can get away with a lot of funny things that you couldn’t do in your regular clothes.”
Sandi Dolitz Vasquez ’96
If laughter is the best medicine, Sandi Dolitz Vasquez '96 (professional and technical communications) is doing her best to dispense healthy doses of good cheer.
A recipient of a "clown doctorate" and "doctor of mirth" from Stamford (Conn.) Hospital Health and Humor Associates (HAHA), she's known to patients and families as Nurse NiceAlot.
"It's a wonderful program," Vasquez says. "HAHA is an all-volunteer group founded more than 15 years ago and it has become one of the largest and most active all-volunteer hospital clown organizations in the United States."
Several times a month, Vasquez makes the rounds in the persona of Nurse NiceAlot. She visits with patients of all ages, bringing smiles and conversation and hopefully a laugh or two.
"We know that depression and sadness often come with a hospital stay and can slow the recovery process," says Vasquez. "Giving patients and families a chance to laugh and be silly for a little while can be very beneficial."
The HAHA clowns receive training in health and safety procedures, and also receive tips on interacting with patients. In the hospital setting, clowns need to be caring and sensitive as well as fun and upbeat, depending on the situation.
"Some people are afraid of clowns," Vasquez says. "You don't want to make anyone uncomfortable." As a rule, hospital clowns tend to be a bit less flamboyant than other clowns; Nurse NiceAlot, for instance, wears a lab coat and light makeup.
Although Nurse NiceAlot is a new character, Vasquez has more than 15 years of clown experience. She performs semi-professionally as Violet, a "pretty" clown with lavender hair and full makeup including extravagantly curled eyelashes.
Vasquez, who now lives in Norwalk, Conn., with her husband, William, and 6-year-old son, Benny, started clowning in Rochester, her hometown. "I met a clown at a party," she says. Cindy Pelc wasn't clowning at the time, but in the course of conversation, Vasquez learned that Pelc and her husband, Jim, operate Just Clowning Around.
"We just clicked," says Vasquez. "She told me about courses available. Clowning fit my personality very well. I'm outgoing by nature, bubbly. I started doing face painting and balloons at birthday parties, friends and family functions, and volunteering at community events.
"To me, it's about volunteering. I love being a clown but I don't want to do it as a business."
In real life, Vasquez is a global information systems trainer for Diageo. The company, headquartered in London, is a premium beverage business with brands including Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Guiness, Baileys and many other top labels.
"It's a great job," says Vasquez. From the company's Norwalk, Conn., office, she works with people all over the world, providing training on software and technical support. "It's very exciting to be here."
Before joining Diageo, Vasquez worked for Martha Stewart - yes, that Martha Stewart - for 10 years as technical support manager at the Westport, Conn., TV studio.
"She was looking for a certain personality, I think." Vasquez, a social worker for 10 years before starting at RIT, had the right blend of people skills, energy and technical ability.
"It was very intense, very demanding, but it was really great experience."
Although most of her work was behind the scenes, Vasquez may be familiar to fans of Stewart's TV show. "I was featured several times as sort of a resident 'cooking for dummies' test case," she says. "My mother loved that."
Despite a demanding career and active family life, Vasquez makes time for her unusual avocation.
"Clowning is a great outlet," she says. "You can get away with a lot of funny things that you couldn't do in your regular clothes."