When she was 8 years old, Grace was afraid of heights. She avoided tall buildings and was the last to rush toward a skyscraper window to ooh and ahh at the cityscape below. Fear is a powerful deterrent, and while her friends in the Kids Connect after-school program looked forward to Wednesday evenings at Circus Juventus, Grace only saw another evening where her fears prevented her from spending time with friends.
For nearly a decade, Neighborhood House has partnered with Circus Juventus, a circus arts program, to provide low-income youth with the opportunity to build confidence and explore a world outside the confines of their neighborhood. The experience has become something unique that younger children in Kids Connect look forward to, when they turn eight and have the option to try something new with their older friends and siblings.
The first time stepping onto the floor of the Big Top is special. The practice space is for performers and coaches only, and for many youth, crossing its threshold signals maturity and responsibility. Chris Gustafson, the Kids Connect program coordinator, has been taking groups of Neighborhood House youth to Circus Juventus for three years “it doesn’t matter how old the kids are, their eyes always light up when they see the floor for the first time.”
Lights beam down from all angles illuminating the vast arena and youth performers of all ages going through their routines with practiced skill. The space is a budding adventurer’s dream – filled with trapeze, brightly colored aerial ribbons, German Wheels, and trampolines that can bounce a grown man two stories into the air!
Very much the proud mentor, Chris spends every Wednesday watching his group practice their routines with the coaching staff. He’s worked with many youth who come to Neighborhood House seeking a safe haven from problems at home or school, and has seen just how impactful these evenings in the big top can be. “When our kids succeed at something they never imagined they could do, that’s huge! It carries over into everything: home, school, career, life – kids will say ‘If I can fly on trapeze, why can’t I ace that math test!’”
One day, after months of shying away from nights at Circus, Grace took the leap and is now a regular on Wednesdays. She loves the German Wheel and trampoline, and is working toward overcoming her fear of heights on the trapeze.
By Anders Ringdahl-Mayland