James “Jim” Birdwell, who first became a clown in 1996, is a source of fun and creativity at Quail Ridge assisted living in Pocatello, Idaho. He ties 20 to 30 balloon animals each week, and his clowning talents and charming personality never fail to brighten the lives of fellow residents, associates and visitors.
“I just love to tie these balloons,” Jim said with a smile. “I make puppy dogs, bumble bees and other animals, and I give them to the people in here. If kids come in, I like giving one to them and watching them smile.”
Jim, who is also known as Nickel the Clown, is loved and appreciated by the people around him.
“Jim is a ray of sunshine and a true joy to us,” said Kelsie Hansen, executive director.
Before he began lifting spirits at Quail Ridge, Jim, who began clowning at 69 years old, used his skills to make an impact on countless people.
Jim was a hospital clown, meaning he visited hospitals to entertain the children there and make them smile. He worked at several hospitals in the Pocatello area, as well as Shriner’s Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City; Sacramento, California; Portland, Oregon; and Spokane, Washington.
When clowning at hospitals, Jim would wear size 64 pants with rainbow suspenders and huge pockets to hold his balloons and pump. He also wore button-down shirts with funny pictures and patterns, such as one he is especially fond of that is decorated with pictures of fish, and bright, colorful ties.
“You never put the ties all the way up,” Jim said. “You always hang them down and let the kids mess with them if they want to.”
Jim’s costume, balloon animals and infectiously energetic personality never failed to lift spirits. In fact, he used his talents to encourage children and hospital staff alike. Jim remembered one occasion in which a woman working at the hospital was unhappy he was there, but eventually came to thank him for putting her in a good mood.
“She said, ‘You made me laugh,’” Jim recalled. “That’s what I was after.”
In addition to earning laughs and smiles, Jim also collected used wheelchairs, walkers and other adaptive equipment from Walmart, dollar stores or anywhere else he could find them, in order to donate them to hospitals. He did this for 11 years, donating more than 100 pieces of equipment to help the hospitals and their patients save money. During these excursions, he paid for his own transportation and lodging but recalled that he was often given the used equipment for free, because it was for a good cause.
Outside of his hospital work, Jim also worked at circuses that came to town. He would tie balloon animals for kids during intermission, sometimes tying up to 300 balloons in one day. His favorite part is the excitement and happiness he brought to the children.
“When I walk up to a child in my uniform, they’re looking at me, of course,” Jim said with a laugh. “When I start pumping the balloon up, their eyes start getting big and they’re just waiting. Then they grab [the balloon animal] and take off running, and then they come back. My favorite trick was making them laugh and making them happy. That was my objective.”
In fact, Jim’s only regret in his clowning career is that he did not start sooner.
“I’ve wished many a time I had gotten into it a lot earlier in my life,” said Jim. “I was 69 when I got into clowning. The only reason I started is because a good friend of mine went over to the minidome to do a clown job. I went with him, he showed me, and I fell in love.”
Jim’s clowning career changed his life and countless other lives. Now, he’s been clowning for 23 years, and he still loves it.
“My purpose is to make people smile,” said Jim. “I won’t stop doing it until I’m not alive anymore.”
Quail Ridge is thankful that Jim is there to keep everyone smiling.