Elizabeth Meade sat in the humid September heat of Costa Rica recently, giving reassuring hand squeezes, hugs and an occasional paper rose to some of the people she met.
Meade did so sporting her brilliant, signature smile — along with a large, red clown nose, a colorful hat and suspenders.
The outing and outfit were all part of Meade’s recent trip to Central America as an ambassador for the Patch Adams Geshundheit! Instititute.
Her mission was to share love and encouragement with people facing a variety of medical challenges and needing an infusion of joy.
Meade, 22, of Waldoboro, can relate.
Born with cerebral palsy, Meade has been aided by a wheel chair since age 13.
She met Adams while attending one of his workshops eight years ago and was immediately inspired by his compassion and dedication to serve others.
Adams is a doctor, clown, social activist and founder of the Gesundheit! Institute that exists to provide free medical care, along with a good dose of laughter and dignity, to help patients heal. He previously invited Meade to come work with him.
On Sept. 10, Meade took him up on the offer, flying to Costa Rica with a team of 25 for a six-day clowning trip.
The team made daily visits to impoverished areas of the country, including to a school, a community center, a mental institution and a juvenile detention in La Carpio, Costa Rica to bring some joy to residents there.
The trip was not without its challenges.
First, Meade and gal pal Sadie McCarney, 20, of Canada each had to raise the nearly $1,300 trip fee. Then, McCarney, who doubled as Meade’s personal assistant, was plagued by travel complications that threatened to keep her in Canada just days before the departure date.
Thankfully, the lack of an interpreter in-country proved to be a non-issue for the team, who used what little Spanish they knew and relied on the “power of touch” when interacting with others.
“Many people in places like nursing homes and orphanages don’t have the luxury of a caring touch,” Meade said. “Just holding someone’s hand and offering a hug or a smile communicates ‘you are loved and cared for.’“
Meade was initially nervous about her clowning abilities, but soon realized she needn’t be physical or over-the-top silly.
“Most of the time it was more important to simply be present,” Meade said.
Meade experienced the power of touch for herself several times along the way, including on Day 2 of the trip when the team arrived at a venue to discover there was no wheelchair access to their second-floor classroom.
Adams quickly responded by scooping Meade up in his arms and carrying her up the stairs while team members lugged the wheelchair up behind them.
Meade said she found her own niche in clowning, using eye contact, a smile, gentle touch and nose honks on her rubber appendage to impart a smile. Some days she danced in her wheelchair. At other times, she sat quietly, allowing her presence to soothe others.
Meade’s grandmother Susan Meade said the trip was a natural outflow for Elizabeth, whom she described as caring, creative and determined.
“Elizabeth is very frank about what she thinks but also has this incredible gentleness about her,” Susan Meade said. “She is determined to make the most of what she has.”
Indeed, Elizabeth Meade refuses to allow her physical challenges to define her, or keep her from living life to the fullest.
Articulate and well-read, Meade often celebrates her perceived weaknesses in poetic verse.
One of her poems, “Ode to Left Arm,” was featured in the online publication Wordgathering’s September issue, and she intends to submit more in the future.
“This trip has changed me and made me more aware of my ability to affect other people and be affected by them in compassionate ways,” Meade said. “I came home looking for ways to be more patient, loving and caring with others in different ways and in different environments.”
“Everyone deserves to be cared for and we all are able to make a difference in our own way.”
Correction/clarification: This story was revised at 2:50 p.m., Oct. 2, 2012, to state that Elizabeth Meade visited a school and community center in La Carpio, Costa Rica, as a volunteer for a Gesundheit! Institute clowning outreach trip to impoverished communities in Central America. Also, a doctor’s diagnosis that Meade contracted Lyme disease was never confirmed and treatment for the condition was unsuccessful.