July 21, 2021

Under the Big Top—Trenton Circus Squad Looks Ahead with New Tent and Big Plans

CIRCUS MAGIC: The Trenton Circus Squad, a nonprofit teaching both life skills and circus skills, recently completed a one-week residency in Camden, with more than 1,000 local youths participating. The organization, which is also touring to Asbury Park and Newark this summer before returning to Trenton, has just received a $250,000 gift to purchase a big top circus tent, which, starting in 2022, will house their expanding endeavors. (Photo by Avi Steinhardt)

By Donald Gilpin

The Trenton Circus Squad (TCS), whose mission is all about inspiring youths to take big leaps in life, is preparing to take some big leaps of its own. The TSC has just received a gift of $250,000 for the purchase of a big top circus tent, currently being manufactured in Italy by the same company that creates tents for the Cirque de Soleil.

“This grant will certainly inspire TCS to take a huge leap as an organization,” said TCS executive director and co-founder Tom von Oehsen. “This is very exciting. What it will mean is bringing together all the locations that we’ve been serving throughout New Jersey so it’s building community statewide instead of just locally in the Mercer County area.”

Pamela Carter, trustee of The Carter Rowe Charitable Trust, which made the gift, is one of many fans and supporters of the TCS. “I have been a proud benefactor since the Squad’s first day,” she said. “The tent is a gift to show my complete awe of this successful project. May it last for generations. In 25 years this has been the most incredible and successful project for the CRCT to support.”

Carter’s son participated in the TCS’s after-school program at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, one of several area school residencies they have held in recent years.

The Squad completed a week-long residency in Camden last month, followed by a two-week stay at their headquarters in the former Roebling Wire Works building on South Clinton Avenue in Trenton. They are currently in Asbury Park for a one-week residency, will return to Trenton for two weeks before heading to Newark on August 9 for another week-long residency, then back to Trenton for the duration of the summer.

Partnering with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, city recreation departments, YMCAs, and other organizations that serve youths, the TCS is “still transitioning back to normal” after the pandemic, von Oehsen said.

Last summer they led virtual workshops and performed online in all four cities, but this summer their residencies are in person, working with kids face to face. More than 1,000 young people participated during TCS’s week in Camden.

In addition to learning circus skills, squad members, ages 12 to 18, learn life skills, build trust with teens from other neighborhoods, and serve their communities. They lead community engagement through workshops and performances for younger children and families. “It’s an often-breathtaking experience filled with exercise, learning, and joyful laughter for kids of all ages,” the TCS website notes.

TCS is open year-round with after-school sessions from September to June followed by the summer residencies and tour. About half of the 60 squad members this summer are from inner-city Trenton and about half from surrounding suburban communities. TCS is in expansion mode, Von Oehsen says, and he’s hoping to be working with about 100 kids per week as the fall season gets started in September.

“What’s great is that a lot of our older squad members are working as junior coaches and interns,” said von Oehsen. “We were able to offer them summer employment and for some that will also be year-round while they’re taking classes at Mercer County Community College. And they stick around. These kids don’t leave us.”

One of the founding squad members was 15 years old when he started six years ago, became a junior coach when he graduated from high school, and was just hired as a full-time coach to accommodate the demand for an outreach program in the city of Trenton.

Von Oehsen described how TCS responded to the pandemic and the surrounding political turmoil and social unrest as it opened again in July 2020 after shutting down from March to July last year.

“The kids came back needing to deal with a lot of stuff that was going on in society,” he said. “There were demonstrations going on in Trenton that led to violence, police cars on fire, broken windows, George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, then pandemic,
virtual learning, and everything.”

He continued, “When we got back into our circus ring, it became a ring of reflection for them to talk about this stuff and figure out what was fact and what was false. After those talks they really wanted to do something. They felt that they had to do something to share their anger, their fears, their hopes. So they started using their circus skills in a different way to convey their sense of what they were dealing with as individuals and as a group.”

After they researched and discussed social issues ranging from COVID-19 to police brutality to sexual harassment, the performance they created, titled “Change,” became an icebreaker to initiate discussions on Zoom, as they reached out to a broader group than ever before.

“These conversations were not easy and many times left all of us feeling heartbroken and discouraged,” the TCS website states, but “the results were phenomenal,” and “these young people embodied everything that’s right with the world and made us proud that these are the leaders of tomorrow.”

Von Oehsen added, “Some amazing things came about in those dark days that we all had to deal with. It was a real departure from our usual comedy and beautiful aerials — and we still do those too — led by our youth who felt they really needed to do something, using their skills to engage kids not just in Mercer County but statewide and beyond.”

The big top circus tent will arrive in January 2022, and the TCS is planning how to use it, raising money and approaching sponsors to help fund a grand tour for next summer.

“It’s about grassroots, working with partners, bringing kids together and celebrating being kids,” he said. “They’re allowed to take risks and feel safe and be protected. It’s very diverse and inclusive, and any kind of kid can be there and be welcome, find success and be supported.”

With their new big top, along with rapidly developing skills and the rising caliber of students, TCS and von Oehsen are looking forward to the start of a new era in the organization’s six-year history. “The youth are really stepping up,” he said. “After the pandemic shutdown they were prepared to take action. Everything we’ve done in the past six years has been well worthwhile and now they want to use their skills and make a statement, to be activists and engage other youths.”