Trenton Circus Squad balances fun, skills and social outreach [video]

Swinging from a trapeze just might be the key to transforming the lives of some troubled teens in New Jersey.

That’s why a former school administrator and an ex-executive teamed up to launch Trenton Circus Squad last summer.

Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes started the group with the dual goal of connecting with hard-to-reach teens while forging friendships between two very different groups of youth.

At the old Roebling Wire Works, where they gather after school daily, teens wearing ankle monitors or trailed by social workers practice aerial acrobatics and balancing stunts with teens from New Jersey’s poshest private schools.

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“Kids just don’t know how the other half lives. That isn’t necessarily just a race issue; it’s also poverty issue,” Brookes said. “Circus is a great integrator because very quickly and immediately, you have to rely on one another in a way that is visceral, that is immediate and that transcends assumptions. When somebody is standing on your shoulders, or you’re standing on someone’s shoulders, all your preconceived notions slip away, and the questions instead become: ‘Can I hold them?’ ‘Can they hold me?’ ‘Can we stay steady?’ Circus has a great track record in overcoming perceived differences and discovering that at heart, we are all very much the same.”

Brookes was the chief operating officer at Isles, a Trenton-based community-development nonprofit, when the idea for a circus squad germinated in 2014 as she bounced between her city job and suburban home.

“I was commuting back and forth to Princeton and lamenting that the kids in those towns didn’t really connect,” Brookes said. “I had a picture of creating something in Trenton that would be fabulous enough that kids would want to come from all over.”

Von Oehsen already had something fabulous under way. Von Oehsen, who went to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College years ago, ran a Clown Academy for students at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, where he was admissions director.

The two knew each other, and for Brookes, a mother of three who dabbled in circus arts herself, a partnership seemed fated.

They launched last summer, drawing so many kids that continuing through the school year was a no-brainer. Now, a core group of about 35 teens makes up the squad, and another 50 to 150 area youth attend circus workshops each week, Brookes said. The program is free to participants; Brookes and von Oehsen rely on donations and grants for support.

‘A really good feeling’

Peek any afternoon inside the old factory where the squad practices, and you’ll see teens striding on stilts; posing balletically on silks, trapezes, hoops and other contraptions dangling from the ceiling; balancing on tightropes; spinning on a German wheel; leaping on a trampoline; honing slapstick and comic timing; creating clown costumes; teetering on unicycles and rolla bolla balance boards; and juggling devil sticks, balls, scarves and bowling pins.

Community service is a squad requirement: Teens on the squad give back to the community by teaching younger kids who come for workshops and by performing for free in the community.

“It’s nice to be able to show off and not be criticized for it,” said Vivian Smyth, 15, of Trenton’s Mill Hill neighborhood:Nick Hazell, 17, of Hamilton, N.J., agreed: “It gives you a really good feeling; it’s like the funnest way to volunteer.”

Sharing his circus skills with younger kids also keeps Hazell coming back every day: “It’s like something I can give that keeps on giving. I teach a kid to juggle, and then he can juggle for the rest of his life.”

The program has proved so successful that it won national recognition in February from the American Youth Circus Organization as one of 17 “social circus” programs nationally that boost outcomes for low-income and at-risk youth, according to a study funded by Cirque du Soleil. The Trenton program is the only social circus in New Jersey; there are none in Pennsylvania.

Brookes and von Oehsen aim to expand it to other New Jersey cities including Camden, Newark, New Brunswick and Paterson.

“The plan is to show how this kind of program can reach hard-to-reach kids and bridge important gaps in other communities the way it has here,” Brookes said.

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