2016 Reasons to Believe Alumni Honor Roll

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Role models who give us Reasons to Believe in the power of education

Bernice E. Collins

Bernice E CollinsWashington High School, 1975

Other Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools Attended: Quindaro Elementary, West Junior High School, Wyandotte High School

Lots of kids dream of growing up, running away and joining the circus. Bernice Collins actually made it happen, and she has turned a childhood dream into a career, and a life. In 1977, she became the first black female clown in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus! Since then, she has made a life for herself travelling the world and bringing joy to others.

Collins grew up in a musical family, with a dad who directed a community choir, and five siblings who all sang and played the piano. Her mother used to take her to the circus when it came to town, and Bernice loved the animals, and the women riding on the elephants in costumes. At age 14, she knew the circus was what she wanted to do with her life. Ironically, it was the year the circus did not come to town that changed her life. Not wanting to miss, she travelled to Chicago, stayed with a sister’s friend, and went to the circus every day. Soon, she started hanging out with members of the troupe, and they told her about clown college. When she came home, she told her dad she wanted to go, and though he was shocked, he agreed.

The day after she graduated from clown college, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus offered her a job. She has spent her life as an entertainer, performing as a clown, dancing as a showgirl, training and presenting horses, and for a year, working as an apprentice with the big cats. She counts working in the cage with tigers as her greatest accomplishment. It taught her to be a strong women. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she says, and if anyone knows that to be true, it is Collins.

After leaving Ringling Brothers, Collins has pursued a diverse career in entertainment. She has served as company manager at the Big Apple Circus, worked for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York, and currently works for Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity in Las Vegas.

Her advice for young people: “Find something that interests you, and find someone who can help you to pursue it.”