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Circus of life: Dreams take flight amid urban blight

Associated Press logo Associated Press 5/3/2017 By JOSEPH FREDERICK, Associated Press
In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, people watch a performance by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, people watch a performance by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — 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.

In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, Gabbie Cain, back, and Eric Marrero perform a juggling act during a show by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, Gabbie Cain, back, and Eric Marrero perform a juggling act during a show by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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.

In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, a crowd reacts at the end of an act called "Diablo" by Eric Marrero during a performance by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, a crowd reacts at the end of an act called "Diablo" by Eric Marrero during a performance by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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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.

In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, women react to a comedy act during a performance by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, women react to a comedy act during a performance by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

"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."

In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, girls perform a silk dancing act during a performance by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Thursday, March 30, 2017, girls perform a silk dancing act during a performance by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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.

In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Jillian Richman, left, helps Maggie Nulman learn an acrobatic move during a workshop by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Jillian Richman, left, helps Maggie Nulman learn an acrobatic move during a workshop by the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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."

In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Samantha Ashwooth-Nalbone works on an acrobatic move during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Samantha Ashwooth-Nalbone works on an acrobatic move during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

"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."

In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Quadir Ray works on a jumbling act called "Diablo" while walking on a tight rope machine during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Quadir Ray works on a jumbling act called "Diablo" while walking on a tight rope machine during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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.

In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Tiffany Thomas, center, is held up by Liam Quat, right, and Sonia Shah while working on a balancing act during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Tiffany Thomas, center, is held up by Liam Quat, right, and Sonia Shah while working on a balancing act during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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.

In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Gabbie Cain, left, gives a thumbs up to Helen Vazquez as they work on the splits during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Gabbie Cain, left, gives a thumbs up to Helen Vazquez as they work on the splits during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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.

In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Helen Vazquez, center, learns an acrobatic move on a hanging ring during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) © The Associated Press In a photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2017, Helen Vazquez, center, learns an acrobatic move on a hanging ring during a workshop at the Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, N.J. The squad, comprised of kids age 12 to 17 from both the struggling city of Trenton and its wealthier suburbs together, using circus skills to give kids a sense of belonging and a belief in their own abilities. Tom von Oehsen and Zoe Brookes created the group two years ago to try to change perceptions and stereotypes that lead to negative assumptions about teens in inner cities. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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."

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