(Photo: Courtesy Circesteem)

Step. Right. Up!

Uptown circus program gives struggling kids direction

 This circus is always in town, and in its bag of tricks is empowerment for Chicago’s youth.

Tucked discreetly in the Uptown neighborhood, the CircEsteem staff performs daily operations out of a building housing Alternatives’, a youth and family agency. Alternatives’ mission is to provide a safe space and support system for children, and one special program in particular uses the circus theme to invigorate and motivate.

Since its founding in 2001, CircEsteem has reached out to help over 100,000 children through its programs, workshops and birthday parties. Through October 2017, CircEsteem has worked with 750 youth in 21 neighborhoods in sessions spanning 10 weeks or longer.

Executive director Dan Roberts notes his CircEsteem staff is not qualified to identify or offer therapy to children suffering from a mental illness or abuse, but by partnering with dozens of Alternatives social workers, at risk youth can be identified.

The social workers perform check-ins with the children, looking for symptoms or signs of disorders so they can direct them to an outside therapy source. To ensure everyone has a positive experience, they also participate in group discussions and healthy conversations. Programs director Kasumi Kato calls CircEsteem the first line of defense for many children as it reaches out to their children to other services.

CircEsteem aims to do what its name implies – build children’s self-esteem through circus routines, teamwork and social skills.

“Circus is unique because it is a non-competitive sport. The only person you compete with is yourself,” said Roberts, who has been working for CircEsteem for 15 years and watched it grow to reach a variety of children.

The idea is to teach children from as young as 5 to their teens valuable life lessons through mentoring, community violence awareness, gang prevention and academic enrichment. Each effort might target a different demographic, but they all aim to help in the same way. The program’s diversity allows children from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives to come together to create art and lift each other up.

In 2016, CircEsteem received a grant from the city of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to create a mentoring and anti-violence program for 8th-grade boys in the Gage Park neighborhood. The program, CircEsteem at Sawyer School, is in its first year and has an enrollment of 17. They meet once a week for two-and-a-half hours.

Kato recalls the story of a boy who entered the Sawyer program shy and was a target for teasing. 

“We had the CircEsteem at Sawyer kids perform at our annual gala, and the boy who had been really shy was on stage shining through,” he said. 

The next week, he offered to participate in an activity at school, teasing other boys who had been too shy to volunteer.

“The kids have just blossomed,” Kato said. “Because they’re 8th-grade boys, there is a lot that we can see just on the surface that fractures them from one another…but we’re beginning to see individual quirks and traits that make them special.”

CircEsteem is in the process of creating a sister program, which will seek to empower young girls.

On the surface, CircEsteem may seem to be just a fun outlet for children to learn to juggle and walk a tightrope, but it delves much deeper in helping them build confidence, even in the face of failure. They are then able to take these lessons and apply them to a group setting.

“It is inspiring to watch children come into the program with seemingly so little hope and leave the program as strong, powerful contributors to their communities and to Chicago,” Roberts said. Some come back to be teachers and volunteers at CircEsteem, while others receive scholarships and attend college.

Roberts tells a story of a young woman who arrived in the United States as a refugee from the Sudan at the age of 11. After completing CircEsteem, she graduated from high school and attended Carleton University with a full scholarship.  After sitting on the CircEsteem board, she is attending a university in Texas, pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

“That young woman was fabulous from the beginning, but she could have been another statistic. Do I believe CircEsteem did that? No, I believe she did that, but I do believe CircEsteem aided in helping her succeed.”

This past summer, Roberts and his CircEsteem team traveled to Poland and Indonesia with a group of six children who shared what they had learned. In Indonesia, the Chicago contingent helped Indonesian children create a show they would perform a number of times, while in Poland, children from different parts of the world shared art and music skills.

“These kids build these very powerful relationships with children who don’t look like them, don’t speak like them, don’t eat like them, don’t pray like them. Everything about these children is different, except that they have this passion, skill and talent for art.” Roberts said.

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