Not Just Clowning Around – The Power of Circus

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By Anne Levin

At almost every training session of the Trenton Circus Squad, Zoe Brookes hears someone shout out the phrase that has come to be her favorite in the English language: “I did it!”

The executive director of this program based in the capital city’s historic Wireworks Factory, Brookes nods and smiles as a tween-aged girl, as if on cue, exults in those three words after mastering a challenging landing from a jump that started on a minitrampoline and ended on a stack of mats. “You can see these kids discovering they had more power than they thought,” Brookes says, keeping an eye on the girl and her companions from the sidelines. “They feel safe here. The rules keep you physically safe, but you get to do things that make you feel powerful.”

After a few minutes, the girls move on to try hanging from a trapeze while another group comes over to try and launch themselves from the trampoline. Circus equipment is placed all around one end of the vast space that once housed a section of the Roebling Wireworks during Trenton’s industrial heyday. Light streams in from the arched windows, and the doors are left open to let in the fresh air on this early spring day. Discovering the power, discipline, and freedom that circus skills provide is the basis of the Trenton Circus Squad, which has exceeded expectations in less than a year of existence. Brookes and program director Thomas von Oehsen have partnered with such agencies as the Boys & Girls Club of Trenton, the Catholic Youth Organization, Anchor House, Mercer House, Urban Promise, Homefront, PEI Kids, Mill Hill Child and Family Development Center, and PSE&G Children’s Specialized Hospital to create this program geared to at-risk, hard-to-reach youth from inner city Trenton and surrounding communities. The idea is to foster understanding and diversity by pairing children from different backgrounds. So the participants from underserved urban families might learn how to ride a unicycle or walk on stilts alongside those from less challenging circumstances. Kids who live in a homeless shelter can be mastering juggling or slapstick with students from the prestigious Lawrenceville School.
All of this takes mutual trust.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Everybody has a story,” says von Oehsen. “Once you’ve stood on somebody’s shoulders, the rest doesn’t matter.” Brookes adds, “We get the underserved kids, but we also get kids showing up who have everything they could possibly need. But they’re stressed out. We show them this isn’t a place you need to be at odds with anyone. We can all win when everyone takes care of each other.”

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Brookes and von Oehsen discovered a shared interest in youth circus eight years ago after being connected by a mutual friend. Brookes, a trained engineer, was the chief operating officer of Isles, the Trenton community development agency. She got hooked after getting her three children involved in a community circus in Connecticut. Later, she ran the Stone Soup Circus program in Princeton. Von Oehsen, who had attended clown college after graduating from Princeton Day School and taking a gap year at Lawrenceville, was administrative director of Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart for 15 years. While there, he ran a circus program.

“We had parallel circus lives,” Brookes says. “We first talked in the summer of 2014, and we realized that our intent of what circus could do for youth was similar.”

After spending a year raising funds, they started the Trenton Circus Squad last summer with about $240,000 in private donations. Their initial program included 21 workshops for 900 young people from the Trenton area. In addition to the agencies they contacted, the partners got recommendations from social workers and local police officers of particular kids whom the program might beneit.

The program’s focus is a core squad, aged 12 to 17. Once they master certain techniques, these kids teach youngsters aged six and up how to perform different circus skills. “Half the youth are from Trenton, typically with low incomes, and half come from elsewhere,” van Oehsen says. “About 20 percent come because a social worker or police officer said it would be good for them. About 30 to 50 percent were told about us by a friend. We recruit from the schools. We have connections with social services. And there are the neighborhood kids who might ride by on their bikes and look in, and we invite them in. We’ve had a lot of walk-ins, and that’s been really cool.” Amanda Franklin, a case manager for Mercer House Youth Shelter, has witnessed positive change in the children she brings to the program each week.

“It not only increases their self-esteem, it opens their eyes to different opportunities out there they may have never thought of and that they thought they wouldn’t be able to do,” she says. “It gives them something really positive to think about. For teenagers involved with the criminal justice system, it’s exciting to see them passionate and determined and learning positive skills. Everyone is welcoming. No one is judgemental. Everyone is supportive.”

The squad currently numbers about 40. “You get to teach more than you get taught, and I like that,” says 12-year-old Eric, one of the younger squad members. Vivian, 14, says, “To me, it means helping people around me improve. And I get guidance in return.” Payton, another 12-year-old from Trenton, says she didn’t want to participate at first. “I thought it was all about clowning. But when I saw what the other kids were doing, I got interested,” she says. “They teach me things I never knew I could do. I get to work with younger kids, too, which I love.”

Another originally reluctant participant provides one of the program’s success stories. Trenton resident Kordell Garland, 16, kept his head down at first. But in only a few months, he has become an enthusiastic mentor of other kids, while perfecting his own natural physical ability. He now attends a special drama program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts on Saturdays. “I get to meet new kids,” he says.

“There’s lots of improvising. I’m learning to become a better dancer, and I’m getting better at acrobatic skills.” Tom Florek is a volunteer for Anchor House, the Trenton sanctuary for homeless and runaway teens. He has been bringing kids to the program once a week. Florek was doubtful, at first, that they would be interested. But a funny thing happened.

“There were these kids in orange shirts working there, with little stations set up for all the different things they teach,” he recalls. “The girl I had with me kept saying, ‘Can we go?’ I usually don’t make the kids stay, but we hung around for the introduction. Eventually, this girl went and stood in front of the low trapeze. She looked at it. After a few minutes of it being explained to her, she tried it. I couldn’t believe it. Then she did the high trapeze. And then the tightrope. She told me she couldn’t wait to tell her friends about it. The same thing happened the following week. It’s amazing. I think it’s because it’s something different, that most people just don’t do. And it’s a way to show off. Being in a circus is all about that.”

While there are several programs in Trenton that bring kids from surrounding towns to help out those less fortunate, Brookes doesn’t know of any others in Mercer County that pair these segments of the population as mentors. “We absolutely bring our teams together on equal footing,” she says. “That’s very important.”

The famed circus company Cirque du Soleil uses circus arts as a tool for youth development. “So it’s not new,” Brookes says. “But it had been relatively ignored in America. There is now a network of 17 circus programs around the country.” Last summer, 13 members of the squad attended the American Youth Circus Festival in Portland, Maine, sharing their new skills with participants from some 200 schools teaching circus.

Of course, it takes money to keep the program going. “We’re reaching out to get more foundations to contribute, and we’re trying to get funding from the county and the city,” Brookes says. “It’s all private at the moment, but over time we hope to connect to more sources. Our first big fundraising dinner will be in October.”

The partners are hoping to make the Trenton initiative a model that could be followed in other New Jersey cities, and they hope to start additional programs in cities like Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick. “We know that for some, circus is utterly transformative,” says Brookes. “I was talking to a kid from another circus program in St. Louis, and I asked him how it had changed his life. He said, to me, ‘It didn’t change my life. It saved my life.’”

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