A group of would-be circus performers in New Jersey's capital city are using unicycles, acrobatics and spinning plates to bridge the divide between poverty and privilege.
The Trenton Circus Squad brings kids ages 12-17 from both the struggling city and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give them a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities.
While teaching young people to be the ring masters of their own lives, the kids also work on balancing on large balls and wood planks, stilt walking, trapeze skills, juggling and slapstick clown routines.
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"Because of the high crime, the high unemployment going on here, hope's hard to find in this city," said program director Tom von Oehsen, who trained as a clown with Ringling Bros. in the 1980s. "And these kids bring a lot of hope, and a lot of positive energy to all the different communities in this city."
Von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes, the group's executive director, created the circus squad two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities.
Von Oehsen calls it a "game changer" that other cities can embrace to engage inner city youth and keep them off the streets. Brookes says they give the kids "a really safe place to test their limits and help them do things they never thought were possible."
"The kids in the program really become role models," Brookes said. "And we bring in people from many other towns really to change their perspective on what Trenton has to offer, and what the kids in Trenton have to offer the community."
The group, which plans to start a pilot program in Camden this summer, performs at nursing homes, hospitals and community events. Kids from other organizations like Boys and Girls clubs and Scout troops tag along on field trips.
While it started as a service project for suburban high school students to fulfill their community service requirement for graduation, the kids kept coming back even after they completed their hours.
The squad is free to kids ages 12-17, relying on donations to keep its doors open. It performs six times a year and holds community workshops in an old factory, teaching even younger kids the art of the circus. Children ages 6 and up are welcome to join a free circus workshop led by members of the squad.
Squad members say they enjoy meeting kids from different backgrounds, knowing that they share some of the same concerns.
"If I have problems at like home or school, I can tell them because they're like family. They won't bring you down about," said Janaeya Brown, 14. "They won't laugh at you. They will help you."
Gabbie Cain is a 16-year-old squad member from nearby Princeton.
"I feel like I connect on some basis, but I've never been exposed to the living that some people here experience," Cain said." So, I've learned a lot just by coming here."