Audrey Lederman became a clown almost 20 years ago to entertain her grandchildren.
In 1990, she graduated from the International School for Performing Clown Arts in Jacksonville.
In May, after 10 weeks of training, she graduated from a different type of clown class. And now she is taking on the serious business of clowning as a Smile Team member for Suncoast Hospice, formerly Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.
"Audrey is an absolute delight and the most fun to clown around with," said Joye Swisher, of Largo, volunteer coordinator of Suncoast Hospice's Smile Team, a contingent of clowns.
Lederman, an 83-year-old Palm Harbor resident whose clown persona is "Ladybug," needed additional training because she will have direct contact with hospice patients.
For five weeks, she was trained on infection control, communication techniques and methods to help clowns tune into the needs of sometimes sad, sometimes sick and ultimately dying patients. The other five weeks focused on basic clowning.
She's going to use her skills to clown with patients and their families at Hospice House Woodside in Pinellas Park and Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor.
"I don't mind the extra training," Lederman said. "I've already signed up to be a part of many different hospice experiences. I've gone on several rounds with the mature clowns, the ones who have been around awhile."
Lederman will simply add these clowning activities to an already busy schedule. She practices t'ai chi and water aerobics. She plays the piano, gives piano lessons to a young child in her neighborhood, and enjoys mah-jongg with friends and family.
She goes to the theater with her friends and works as a volunteer usher for Ruth Eckerd Hall.
"Audrey is one of the most dynamic people I know," said Debbie Williams, another Suncoast Hospice volunteer coordinator whose clown persona is Itsy Bitsy. "She is always busy helping people and bringing smiles to their faces. She is nonstop and a dynamo and the spirit of compassion."
While Lederman may have a thing or two to learn about Suncoast Hospice's hospital protocol, she needs no tutoring in clown ethics. She knows to knock and ask if people want a clown visit. One day they might, the next they may not.
That concept is unusual for Lederman.
As a clown, she is used to being welcomed.
"I used to be amazed when parents let children run up to me and hug me without any special precautions," she said.
A cautious mind-set is good for a hospice clown. While clowning is often a light-hearted exchange for patients, Lederman understands there will be times when her smile and a singing hand puppet may be turned away.
That will not hurt Lederman's feelings. All hospice clowns know patient choices guide the care at Suncoast Hospice.
Lederman would not have it any other way. She is independent. Makes her own choices. And while clowning is one of her passions, her priority is her children.
She is the mother of a grown daughter and two sons, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of four. A matriarch who touts helping others.
Over the past year before clown school, Lederman has been volunteering at Suncoast Hospice in another capacity. She visits patients who are asked to answer surveys pertaining to whether Suncoast Hospice was meeting their needs.
"There was this 98-year-old woman at an assisted-living facility," Lederman said. "I told her I was a clown. She said, 'I love ladybugs, but answer me please, why are there no manbugs?'
"I had to laugh. Maybe if we all laughed more and let some of our problems go, we might be happier human beings."
Lederman knows the life of a hospice clown will not always be easy. Or filled with laughter. It is a rare opportunity, and that in part is what pulled Lederman back to clowning.
"I wanted to be a Hospice clown because I found them to be beautiful people," she said. "Extra special people. They are caring clowns, not circus clowns. They are, and I am, there just trying to make people happy."