“My definition of a great job is one you wouldn’t quit, even if you won the lottery.
And I wouldn’t quit,” says Jessica, the Executive Director of Circus Harmony, a St. Louis organization that uses circus arts to promote personal development and community involvement. “And I’d put all the money back into my work!”
Jessica created Circus Harmony in 2001 to maintain the St. Louis Arches, an amateur youth circus troupe she’d coached and mentored since 1989. The group was in danger of losing its funding because the original founders had decided to fold. “I couldn’t tell those kids it was all over, so I started my own non-profit,” says Jessica, herself a former aerialist, clown, juggler, bareback rider, small animal trainer and – gulp! – fire-eater.
According to Jessica, learning the circus arts develops focus, persistence, teamwork and tolerance. “Our goal is to make kids better people. They have control over how people see them. They learn to shed labels. People see what they can do, not what they can’t,” she says. “Religion, color, those things don’t matter. What matters is what you do.”
Headquartered inside St. Louis’s City Museum, the Circus Harmony school is “a safe place to face your fears,” says Jessica, who encourages kids to tumble, fly and stand on each other’s shoulders. “Our job is to get kids to believe in themselves and know they can do it. It’s also an appropriate way for them to show off!” Circus Harmony puts on 400 shows each year, and performing is a healthy way for kids to get positive attention.
Much of Jessica’s work with Circus Harmony has focused on furthering peaceful relations among people of different races and backgrounds. Many of the kids who attend the school would never cross paths in St. Louis, a racially diverse and sometimes divided city. Some students live in gang-dominated neighborhoods or below the poverty line (no child is ever turned away because he or she can’t afford lessons), while others come from middle- or upper-middle-income households. But the kids learn to trust each other in class, and they form friendships that wouldn’t be possible without the circus. Plus, “the fact that the kids are here 5 or 6 nights a week helps keep them out of harm’s way,” says Jessica. “They’re doing something positive for themselves and the community.”
In 2007, Jessica and a group of students traveled to Israel to perform with circus students there (travel was funded by private donations, which the kids worked hard to collect). The “Galilee Arches” project meant a great deal to the children involved, and went a long way toward promoting peace and camaraderie across what seemed to be insurmountable differences of language, religion and culture. The following summer, the Israeli students were invited to St. Louis. “That’s how the world should be,” Jessica says of the multicultural friendships formed through Galilee Arches. “It’s our job as people to put the world back together. Everyone uses their own glue. Mine is circus.”
Note: During January’s Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, Jessica addressed the international community about her work using circus arts as youth and character development tools. She hopes to find a full-time sponsor for the Galilee Arches project and has plans for a charter vocational circus school in St. Louis.