Summer Centered: TJ von Oehsen ’18 Brings Circus Arts to Camden Youth
Just across the Delaware River, the sociology major shares a family practice he’s known for over a decade.
Clowns may be some kids’ worst fear. But TJ von Oehsen ’18 knows from experience that the circus arts can be an accessible and fun way to inspire, challenge, and empower young people. This summer, von Oehsen led the expansion of the Trenton Circus Squad, a social circus arts non-profit co-founded by his father, by starting a pilot program in Camden, N.J. at which kids learned, taught, and performed in the local community.
The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC) sponsored von Oehsen for a seven-week period that included four weeks of communication and planning, two weeks of teaching in the pilot program, and one week of wrap-up work. During the program, 12 kids, ages 12 to 18, with no prior circus experience spent one week learning skills such as unicycling, juggling, trapeze, and slapstick performance, and another teaching workshops for community members and holding performances.
“I think that seeing the squad, who, at the beginning of the two weeks, know nothing about each other, create a show together and get really good at that show and really good at teaching younger kids all of the things that they just learned, is such a cool thing,” said von Oehsen, a sociology major and education minor from Princeton, N.J. “You can become a leader in a certain circus skill in less than two weeks and become a teacher, and some sort of inspiration for the younger people in the city that you’re from.”
Trenton Circus Squad started four years ago as a summer program and has since expanded to an after-school program that runs throughout the year. Everything, from transportation to food to programming, is free of charge for all participants and spectators. This year, as the Squad expanded to Camden, kids from a variety of backgrounds got a chance to try a fun practice that provides an opportunity for art, performance, physical activity, and leadership.
“Through the use of circus arts and slapstick comedy, things that people really don’t have any background in, you’re bringing in people from a bunch of different places, and they’re all starting out in that equal plane,” said von Oehsen.
Von Oehsen has been developing his circus skills since the age of 10. His father, Tom, is a graduate of the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Clown College, and has shared his craft with his three sons. The family practice has grown into family service, and von Oehsen thanked the CPGC for giving him the opportunity not just to work with the Squad, but lead the formation of a whole new branch.
The group’s 12 members, who came from Camden, Trenton, Princeton, and schools in the Sacred Heart network throughout the country, all came together to learn and serve the community. Performing at local youth centers and at a Rutgers University amphitheater, where New Jersey Assemblywoman Patricia Jones was in attendance, the kids flourished by being prompted to challenge and trust each other and themselves.
“There aren’t many opportunities to pursue the arts and to perform and be praised in that way outside of sports,” said von Oehsen. “It’s relentlessly positive, the space that we create, and it combats stress, and you belong to something that, because it’s challenging at first, brings people together in a cool way.”
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.