Duty-bound clown

When Gregg Harris packs his suitcase for work he’s sure not to forget his face-painting kit, limbo sticks and party music. The bag barely zips without a Nerf ball popping out. After costuming himself in colorful garbs and face-paint, he transforms into Yogo. He’s the self-proclaimed “clown who likes to get down and is sometimes profound,” and is on a mission to entertain and encourage the young and old across Chicagoland.

His mission, however, starts at home. He’s a husband and dad of six. “All my kids know that there is always a message in (my act)-that’s why they get a little bored with me,” Harris says. His three sons (Akia, Ian and Ori) and three daughters (Yumiko, Asha and Erica), who range from age 10 to 27, have all partnered with him, playing characters, painting faces, juggling or practicing other crafts. Yet Harris and his wife have probably proven themselves to be the most skillful jugglers of the family in handling the daily challenges of raising six kids, each with a niche set of talents and interests. All of the Harris children were home-schooled through at least early childhood by their mom, Jackie. The type of school they attended afterward was up to them, as long as they kept their grades up.

The oldest sibling, Akia, is now a dad himself who paints and designs everything from murals to invitations. Yumiko, the oldest girl in the bunch, paints faces and body art and just received a B.A. in contemporary dance. The second youngest, Ian, can juggle and unicycle, but prefers the business side of entertainment.

“They’re all independent contractors,” Harris says. “I’d love for it to be a family business, but it’s not a family business in the sense that they have to work. They work when they want to work, and when they want to work, they get paid and … pay the bills for what they want to buy.”

Although Yogo has provided most of the bread and butter for the Harris family, he’s not always welcomed with open arms by the four kids who still live at home. “Sometimes you do things as a joke and they say, ‘Dad, that’s not funny.’ You have to learn how to keep it balanced. I’m trying to. It’s hard sometimes because I love what I do and I do it at home, too.”

The youngest child, Ori, describes Harris as a “really cool dad,” but isn’t always in the mood for Yogo and his antics.

Jackie describes her kids as independent and self-driven. “If they want to do something they’re just going to do it.” Perhaps it’s a trait they’ve picked up from their dad. He was one of six kids himself and worked in modeling, acting and even paper delivery to relieve some of the burden on his parents.

“I’ve always been an entrepreneur from childhood,” Harris says. “I used to go to people’s homes and get their glass bottles and take them to the store and earn money.”

As an adult, he remained driven but couldn’t stop clowning around. He eventually became bored with managing his own cleaning and moving company. It just made sense to combine his business savvy with his love for entertaining. A serendipitous encounter with a clown in 1991 spawned the idea for Yogo and 18 years later, he’s still clowning at age 51.

Many lessons he has learned from clowning have spilled over into his parenting. While he doesn’t push his kids into the business like a stage dad, he does hope to supply them with a few universal skills to pull out at any point in their lives, whether it’s for an entertainment career or just to make a little money on the side. This is a message he hopes to leave with other families through his program, Stop Clowning, which teaches kids life skills and entrepreneurship through the art of clowning. He helps kids create characters to perform at kid- and family-friendly events to earn money and become more independent or just help mom and dad pay for those kid-coveted items like iPods and cell phones.

Jackie pinpoints flexibility as key. “It’s different for us, especially in the summer because the weekends aren’t free,” she says. Scheduling has been the greatest challenge in how their large family functions. When weekends become work days, play becomes work for Gregg and his kids when they choose to help out, but that’s exactly how he wanted life to be when he created Yogo.

His unique profession in entertainment and clowning as Yogo, the clown on the go, has helped shape his journey through fatherhood and given him a profound message he shares with other parents: “Enjoy your family … but leave them a legacy of creating for themselves.”

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