August 19, 2015

Program Teaching Circus Skills Scores With City and Suburban Kids


At the American Youth Circus Festival In Portland, Maine this week, some 200 children from all over the nation are displaying their prowess at clowning, wire-walking, juggling, and other circus-related skills. Among them are 13 youngsters from Trenton Circus Squad, which debuted only a few months ago in a light-filled space at the old Trenton Wireworks Factory.

Still in its infancy, the program has already attracted more participants than its planners predicted. But they couldn’t be happier about this enthusiastic response. “We had a target of having 150 kids this summer, and more than 800 came through,” said Zoe Brookes, the organization’s executive director. “And we’ve had an audience of about 1,100.”

Ms. Brookes and partner Tom von Oehsen are planning to make Trenton Circus Squad a year-round opportunity for children from Trenton, Princeton, and other neighboring communities. Inaugurated this summer with two three-week sessions, the program is designed to introduce young people to circus skills and the discipline and cooperation they demand.

“It’s a wonderful way to allow kids to explore their own limits in a safe way,” said Ms. Brookes. “They get to experience failure, learning, and success. It’s challenging, but you have to rely on other people and try things over and over again. The other thing about circus is that there is a wide variety of things to do. So different talents and different body types can do different things. Some people are good at juggling. Some are good at comic timing. It’s easy for kids to find something that speaks to them and gives them a base.”

Another goal of Trenton Circus Squad is to pair children from different backgrounds and economic circumstances. Half of the children participating come from underserved Trenton families, while the rest are from surrounding towns. “So there is a variety in terms of income and experience,” Ms. Brookes said. “Our formula is to help youth to develop but also bridge the gap between Trenton and other areas.”

Ms. Brookes and Mr. van Oehsen had been working separately in the field of youth circus when they met and made the decision to partner on a new venture. The British-born Ms. Brookes is a trained engineer with a master’s degree in business. She was the chief operating officer of Isles, the Trenton social service agency. In 2008, she founded Stone Soup Circus. “I made community circus and youth circus my thing,” she said. “I can do a lot of the skills and I actually taught circus skills when I was with Stone Soup Circus.”

Princeton native Mr. von Oehsen, a graduate of The Lawrenceville School, trained at Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Sarasota, Florida before attending the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught clowning skills at Princeton Day School, Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, and elsewhere.

“Tom had been thinking about how to have more kids involved through a circus in Trenton. He had worked in that area and he was experimenting,” Ms. Brookes said. “At the same time, I was working for Isles, becoming more aware of the potential for circus to bridge the gap between the city and the surrounding towns and bring youth together.”

Mr. von Oehsen read in the newspaper about what Ms. Brookes was doing, and the two connected last summer. Joining forces, they spent the year raising funds. Private donations of about $240,000 helped launch the program. The partners hope to get additional support from private sources and foundations. “Over time,” Ms. Brookes said, “we expect that kids coming from families who can afford it will continue to make donations.”

Kids pay nothing to participate in Trenton Circus Squad. The summer program participants engaged in 21 workshops for 900 young people from the Trenton area, hosting groups from Urban Promise, Boys and Girls Club, Homefront, Joy in Siblings United, Mercer House Youth Shelter, and Catholic Youth Organization. They displayed their skills at PEI Kids, Every Child Valued, and Mill Hill Child and Family Development Center, attracting a bunch of new recruits.

“We performed every Friday, and every time, some more kids would join,” Ms. Brookes said. “The kids who have shown up have really stuck with it and enjoyed it. They come from a wide range. Some were just walking by, looked in and asked if they could join. Others came from referrals we had from the police and other sources. It’s great to see how the kids help each other. We don’t require a particular skill level, but we ask them to be prepared to learn from each other, work on themselves, and be prepared to give back.”

Ms. Brookes asked some of the participants about their experience during the program. “A few said ‘I don’t feel judged here.’ Or, ‘People are kind to me when I’m trying new stuff,’” she said. Testimony has also come from other sources. “This was so awesome! It helps the children to build self-esteem because they are trying new things that they wouldn’t normally do,” wrote Dr.Juanita Johnson Brooks, the clinical director of PEI Kids, in a report issued by the Circus Squad. “Once participants have mastered the new skills, their faces are beaming with joy.”

The partners are hoping to have a long-term lease that would enable them to continue the program at the Wireworks. Enrollment is set for fall, and sessions begin mid-September.

“It has gone amazingly well so far,” said Ms. Brookes. “I’ve been impressed with how kids from outside Trenton have heard about us, and their parents drive them in. And inside the city, it’s spreading like wildfire.”