The text message from a good friend read:
”Do you know anything about the Trenton Circus Squad, a Princeton-Trenton circus? My kids said to ask you because you know everything — like the Princeton Wizard of Oz.”
I had heard about all sorts of Trenton-Princeton academic and social services collaborations, but a circus? “You must be clowning around — no way,” I texted back.
I was way wrong. As embarrassed as I was about failing to live up to my Princeton Wizard of Oz reputation, I was thrilled to learn about the Trenton Circus Squad, an urban/suburban cultural, educational, recreational, service project that was becoming a reality. The first formal fundraising event is happening on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at the Arts Council of Princeton, and the Trenton Circus Squad goes live in July 2015. The organizers will use hard work, creativity and red clown noses, instead of ruby red slippers, to give heart, courage and brain power to all those involved.
Trenton Circus Squad, the brains and brawn of Princeton residents Zoe Brookes and Tom von Oehsen, intends to use the fun and laughter and skills of circus arts to promote public service, build self-esteem by building physical and mental skills in the performers, and in doing so, “strengthen the fabric of the community. Kids from Trenton will work with kids from outside Trenton in circus troupes and perform for others in their community. Nothing builds human connection better than a smile and a laugh,” according to Ms. Brookes.
She added that Trenton Circus Squad will work with kids ranging in age from 11 through 16, with about half of them coming from Trenton.
”We will create troupes of circus performers who learn to put on a show to entertain others,” Ms. Brookes said. “Older students will learn how to help others learn circus skills too. With all our participants, our focus will be on the importance of laughter, service and human connection.”
The magic, from my perspective, is not only in the Trenton Circus Squad’s mission to make a positive difference in the lives of young people and the quality of community life, but also in how the two principals in the project, Zoe and Tom, managed to get together on the yellow brick road leading to the Trenton Circus Squad.
Zoe immigrated to the U.S. from England 25 years ago with an MBA from London Business School and a professional career as a management consultant with a specialty in the nonprofit sector. In 2008, the mother of three founded Stone Soup Circus during her “spare” time. Stone Soup is a community circus, based in Princeton. She was turned onto the concept of community circus initiative, when she and her husband and then three very young children were living in New Haven, Conn., and she observed the transformative effects of a community circus program in New Haven’s neighborhoods.
Mr. von Oehsen, a Lawrenceville School graduate who then pursued a theater arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, was director of admissions for the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart for 15 years, while simultaneously following his avocation in circus arts. He has directed the Princeton Clown Academy in Princeton since 1982. He trained as a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and has worked with youth throughout his career. In 2014, he ran the Trenton Civic Circus Project, a circus arts pilot program, building a circus troupe from youth referred by HomeFront (the social service organization dedicated to ending homelessness) and the Princeton Clown Academy students.
But it took the matchmaking talents of Liz Erickson, a smart, savvy and creative Princeton-based philanthropist and nonprofit management expert to bring Tom and Zoe together. The Erickson children participated in both Zoe’s Stone Soup Circus and Tom’s summer Princeton Clown Academy. Knowing both von Oehsen and Ms. Brookes, Ms. Erickson realized that both circuses were looking at creating permanent community circus projects in Trenton.
”She immediately recognized the natural fit and how the way to make the circus initiatives sustainable was to have us pool our efforts into one strong and effective youth program,” said Mr. von Oehsen, who is leaving his job at Sacred Heart to become the full-time program director of the Trenton Circus Squad on July 1.
His optimism as to the viability of the project stems not just from his love of circus arts, but from the overwhelming success of the Trenton pilot project he conducted last summer. The project brought students from Princeton’s Clown Academy into Trenton to work with city youth and teach them clowning at the Roebling Wire Works building.
”Teenage boys told us this was the kind of thing they would rather do than get stuck out on the street,” von Oehsen said. “Youth workers told us that we brought joy to their groups. City officials told us that they’d love to see this program running year-round. I saw this as especially effective for athletic teenage boys. Circus arts develop theatrical skills, mental skills, emotional coping skills, and, of course, but also great athletic skills… But what sets us apart from a theater troupe or a sports team is that we also are instilling the concept of community engagement and giving back to one’s community.”
Ms. Brookes said that another distinctive feature of a community circus is that it is totally inclusive — no matter what your background or talents. “There is always a place for you in our circus — we work with what you have — and just make sure to develop what you have to its highest level.”
In the first three years of operation, Ms. Brookes and Mr. von Oehsen expect to do the following: engage more than 1,000 students in circus-based service; reach an audience of at least 11,000; and serve at least 1,200 children in circus workshops. “In total, we expect to touch about 20 percent of the Trenton population directly,” Mr. von Oehsen said. “We believe our work will have a noticeable impact on the sense of pride, connectedness and joy that Trenton residents experience. We will also bring 500 students into Trenton who do not normally visit the city. This influx will connect Trenton residents and businesses with more affluent surrounding communities, resulting in increased economic activity and better understanding.”
The road from Princeton to Trenton is blacktop, not yellow bricks, but thanks to the potential of this circus, it may present some golden opportunities for the youth in both communities.