CircEsteem encourages students to 'clown around'

December 16, 2010 (CHICAGO)

"We have some great acts in store and some great tricks up our sleeves. It's fun," said Jack Gomberg, 14.

"CircEsteem is a non-profit youth circus and our mission is to unite youth from diverse backgrounds and build self-esteem and confidence through circus arts," said CircEsteem Executive Director Maribeth Joy.

Three times a week, students in the Uptown neighborhood meet for an hour of one-on-one tutoring and homework help. Then, they get an hour of training in circus arts.

"We use circus as a motivator to do well in school. We track their progress through progress reports and report cards," Joy said.

Many of the students are recent immigrants, most come from low income families and no student is required to pay a fee to participate.

A partnership with Whole Foods Market provides all CircEsteem students with a healthy snack in the afternoon and a tote bag filled with fresh produce to take home to their families at the end of each day. Students say it doesn't take long to get hooked.

"I used to go to counseling and then I got a mentor there and they started taking me places and he had wanted me to do something over the summer so he had brought me here," said Cortez Young, 14.

In addition to nourishing the body and mind, CircEsteem seeks to lift children's spirits.

Edith Keme, 16, says it worked for her. She moved to Chicago from Togo in 2001 and joined the program soon after. She is now in the double honors program at Lincoln Park High School and last year competed in the world championship representing the United States on the gym wheel.

"The motive of the circus is to build self-esteem and I guess I have plenty of that now," she said.

This weekend, you can see the children perform live, complete with bright lights and costumes during the CircEsteem Winter Circus. Shows are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 4730 N. Sheridan. Tickets are $12. The program stays alive through private donations and ticket sales. For more information, visit

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