The Circus Project, a non-profit organization, helps homeless and at-risk youths through classes designed to teach them important life skills, and learn how to become a professional circus performer.
“The Circus Project not only helps homeless people learn important life skills, it also has a focus on at-risk and marginalized youth in the Portland area,” Meg Russell, circus teacher and performer, said. “[It] teaches life skills such as teamwork, confidence and accountability through outreach programs offered at local schools and community centers.”
According to Jenn Cohen, circus performer, director and instructor, The Circus Project runs a pre-professional circus training program created for the homeless and at-risk youths, which is a rare type of program found in the United States.
According to Sean Andries, outreach coach and programs director, the class has been successful with helping its students become self-confident and self-sufficient, learn life skills and also provide the motivation and support needed to live a more comfortable, simple lifestyle where all the basic needs are met.
“Our methods are effective: 100% of participants in our yearlong Training Company for Homeless and At-Risk Youth have transitioned from a life living on the streets,” Andries said. “91% have successfully transitioned from dependence on social service agencies to independent living, and several are now employed by The Circus Project or other troupes as professional performers and coaches.”
The Circus Project teams up with other outreach programs to bring in potential students.
“We partner with organizations in our community who already have a relationship with these populations,” Andries said. “Whether it be a homeless drop-in center like New Avenues for Youth, or after school programming for financially disadvantaged students like Schools Uniting Neighborhoods, we always make first contact with our students through another organization.”
Cohen helped start The Circus Project in 2008. The seven students that were a part of her original intensive training company all graduated and transitioned from a life living on the streets to a successful life. Two of her pupils, Taylor Coghill and Kole Render, are now professional circus performers.
“The difference between this and other non-profit programs was that nothing was handed to us; we had to work for it,” Coghill said. “Nobody gave me a job, or a grant, or a place to live, but I soon realized I would never complete the program without those basic needs. Circus motivated me to achieve them. Never have I met a team of people with so much invested in my life and my future. These people believed in me; I guess that’s what having a coach is like.”
Render agrees that The Circus Project gave her opportunities and skills, helping her achieve a variety of goals.
“The Circus Project made me who I want to be – which is not to say that I always wanted to be a trapeze artist, but I always wanted to be strong, I wanted to be really capable – and all those qualities are qualities that I got by joining the circus,” Render said.
Andries said he notices a change, sometimes very dramatic, in the behavior the students as he works with them. He says they show more enthusiasm engaging in the material and listen more to authority.
“One of the biggest ways I note a change in my students is that over the course of the eight to 10 weeks I am working with them they become more excited to participate in class,” Andries said. “They have things they have decided they like more than others, they show up more and more on time, and they are upset when they can’t make a class, which is especially true of the homeless populations I have worked with in the past.”
Andries believes the class fulfills its mission to help these people, because whenever a student attends continuously, they show that they are making an effort to be there and learn. This isn’t always easy since the homeless lifestyle can be unpredictable at times, especially when they don’t know if they can make it to class on time, or even know where they will sleep the next day.
“When a homeless student shows up to class week after week and works hard when they are there, I take it as a great compliment,” Andries said. “It means they like what we’re doing and trust that I will be there. It means that what we do in class makes them feel good.”
A homeless or at-risk youth in most cases can join the Circus Project through an outreach organization, but the class will accept anyone who is not part of any program as well.
The Circus Project can be reached at http://thecircusproject.org.
Photo Credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini