Looking beyond himself to help those in need and make people laugh are two not-so-disparate passions that began at an early age for Dana Abendschein. For Dana, who was often described as the class clown at school, helping people have a good time meant entertaining them. He did his first public magic show at age 11, and was offering them weekly by age 15. A turning point came when Dana went on a medical mission trip to Belize and entertained native families in the evening with clowning. He learned that clowns could be enjoyed without language and that laughter was a powerful agent of healing.
He later started going to maximum-security prisons in Missouri and Illinois with his church, using laughter to lift the inmates’ spirits. To help inmates and their families stay in contact, Dana founded the Story Link Program, allowing inmates to read books to their children on cassette and have the book and tape sent to the family at no charge. Since the program began in 1998, Story Link has sent over 30,000 books and tapes to families of inmates from 14 prisons in Missouri and Illinois. He hopes to provide this service to all 20 prisons in Missouri.
Dana is also passionate about teaching what he has learned about clowning and service to others. He teaches clowning at conferences across the country so that others can bring laughter to those who are sick and suffering. Dana and his wife, Jane, coordinate a nonprofit ministry organization, Liberty Belle Ministries. This not only sponsors the Story Link Program but also has helped run a day camp for the Ozarks Berry Festival at the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home in Mt. Vernon, Missouri for the last 20 years, and actively ministers in churches, schools, hospitals and prisons throughout Missouri and the Southeastern United States.
At Washington University in St. Louis, Dana and Jane started the Clown Docs program and his clown doctor character “Professor Dude” is often seen making rounds in the clinics and inpatient units of Children’s Hospital. As a Professor at WUSTL’s School of Medicine, he offers a unique course titled “The Medicine of Laughter,” which may be the first credit course nationally for medical students to learn the benefits of humor for themselves and their patients. In his nomination, colleague Robert Wilkinson states, “I can honestly say that, in the arena of ethics and service, I know no one more deserving than Dana… and the same goes for his integrity and character.”