Youth find antedote to stress by building trust

A new cross-community program for young people in central New Jersey offers an exuberant antidote for school stress, societal inequality and body insecurity - and nurtures the community at the same time.

There’s no charge. Hours in the program count toward school community service requirements. And registration is always open.

Trenton Circus Squad, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, invites youth aged 12-18 to work together, shoulder to shoulder, serving their community.  They do this by embracing the common challenge of learning circus skills – unicycling, juggling, wire-walking, partner acrobatics and more – then sharing these skills through performances and by running workshops for younger children.

The young people at Trenton Circus Squad experience diverse types and levels of stress in their home and academic lives. But whether it is the profound and pervasive stresses of growing up in poverty and subject to racial discrimination or the academic stresses that afflict a suburban high school student, the Trenton Circus Squad program offers an antedote.

About half the young people live in Trenton, with half coming from surrounding towns such as Princeton, Ewing, Pennington, Hopewell and Lawrence.  Nina Tillmann, junior at Princeton High School, says “I think of Trenton Circus Squad as a giant diverse family. We all come from different social, economic and cultural situations but we come together to make magic!

Trenton Circus Squad provides extra-curricular enrichment that is safe, challenging and fun. At the same time, it also provides what so many teenagers crave: autonomy, challenge, connection with others, a safe place to try something new without fear of judgment or competition. Sincere McGrady, 15, from Trenton, says, “My confidence is really high now. I can do a lot of stuff that I never thought of doing before.”

Teenagers’ positive experiences at the Trenton Circus Squad program match what the research predicts: that the best social and emotional learning takes place in programs where youth have freedom to choose their goals and staff act as supporters and cheerleaders. Julia Troilo, who graduates 8th grade at John Witherspoon school in Princeton, NJ this spring, says “When you are holding somebody up, or standing on someone’s shoulders, you can’t not trust them”.

In their study, ‘Preparing Youth to Thrive’, the David P Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, a research center focused on out-of-school-time youth programs, identifies common practices among effective teen programs. These include: a diverse staff and youth, intensive participation, highly collaborative cultures and self-directed projects where youth solve problems with others.

A recent survey of students at Princeton High School, commissioned by Princeton Public Schools and conducted by by Challenge Success, shows that mental health issues related to academic pressure and school life are rife. Forty-seven percent of respondents reported taking more than one day off in a month for mental-health related symptoms. On the other hand, students say they enjoy the times when they are free to choose what they are working on, and they ask for more time for self-directed learning. 

Youth circus programs address such concerns – and more. Youth development specialists Elizabeth Warner, Joseph Spinazzola, Anne Westcott, Cecile Gunn and Hilary Hodgdon point to programs like Trenton Circus Squad as a way to help heal adverse childhood experiences. Focused practice on exacting physical challenges in a safe, supportive environment has been shown to reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress[1].

Trenton Circus Squad tracks the impact of participation on young people’s commitment to civic engagement and their cultural competence. In the first year, 88% of participants reported making friends they would not otherwise have made. Kordell Garland, a junior at Trenton High School West summarizes: “This is like a circus haven. Everybody gives off good vibes.”

The program also aims to challenge stereotypes and assumptions that stem from a lack of awareness of others’ lives and the challenges they face. Fergus Binnie, Princeton High School senior, says “I like to find places to climb. This program showed me that being white and living in Princeton makes it much easier for me to roam and explore. If I was black, or in Trenton, I would be at more risk of getting in trouble doing the same stuff.”

Trenton Circus Squad’s program director, Tom Von Oehsen, who trained as a clown with Ringling Brothers in the early eighties, returned to his passion full-time after a 15-year career as admissions director of a private school, teaching clowning during the summer.  His co-founder, Zoe Brookes, who first encountered community circus in New Haven, CT, took a break from her career as a strategic planning consultant for nonprofits to start a circus program in Princeton: Stone Soup Circus.  During time spent working with Isles, a community development organization in Trenton, Brookes saw the deep disparity between opportunities available to youth in Princeton and to youth inTrenton.  In 2015 the two launched a year-round program that welcomes about 200 teens each year, and serves more than 2,000 younger children in daily workshops led by the teens.

Trenton Circus Squad operates service projects for youth aged 12-18 in the summer and throughout the school year at the Roebling Wire Works in Trenton. To ensure safety, and broad participation, the program offers transportation from key pick up points in the area.

This short video provides a helpful introduction to Trenton Circus Squad. For more information, visit

[1] The Body Can Change the Score: Empirical Support for SomaticRegulation in the Treatment of Traumatized Adolescents; Elizabeth Warner, Joseph Spinazzola, Anne Westcott, Cecile Gunn, Hilary Hodgdon; Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma