Kenora Circus Kids Program improves mental health among hard-to-reach youth

What does juggling and unicycling have to do with improving self-esteem and disruptive behaviour? Jack Martin and Rooke Pitura of William Creighton Youth Services in Kenora made the connection when they attended a spring break Circus and Magic Partnership (C.A.M.P.) program for inner city kids in Winnipeg in 2004. What they saw left them speechless and committed to bringing the program 200 km east, to Kenora, Ontario.

EENet’s Kim Karioja has produced a new edition in the Promising Practices series, focused on the Kenora Circus Kids Program and the approach it takes to offer a positive and proactive arts and education curriculum for “youth-at-risk”. Click below to read the full story.  Promising Practices profiles innovative practices and initiatives from around Ontario.

Read it below or download the PDF.

About the Circus and Magic Partnership program

Youth participating in the Circus and Magic Partnership program

What does juggling and unicycling have to do with improving self-esteem and disruptive behaviour? Jack Martin and Rooke Pitura of William Creighton Youth Services in Kenora made the connection when they attended a spring break Circus and Magic Partnership (C.A.M.P.) program for inner city kids in Winnipeg in 2004. What they saw left them speechless and committed to bringing the program 200 km East to Kenora, Ontario. 

Origins of the partnership 

“Before the performance I felt scared, nervous that I would totally mess up and everyone would laugh. When I saw my classmates perform I started to feel more confident. At the end of it all I felt happy and proud of my accomplishments.” (anonymous grade 6 student)

The C.A.M.P. program is based on Clowns Without Borders started in the 1990’s in Guatemala and other South American countries that experience war. The goals of that initiative were to provide youth with a diversion from the horrors of war and help them experience the fun and play of childhood.  Programs have been set up in the inner city neighbourhoods of London, England, and Detroit, Michigan, where there are high rates of poverty, crime, and gang activity. 

The Winnipeg C.A.M.P. program started in 1996 as an alternative to sport-based programs. It offers a positive and proactive arts and education curriculum for “youth-at-risk”. The program expanded to remote northern Manitoba communities and reserves in 2001. The 2013 week-long spring break camp hosted over 400 youth from Cranberry Portage, Cormorant, Moose Lake, Snow Lake, Sheridan, and Flin Flon and trained 12 adults who would continue to run the program after the facilitators left the community. Over the years, the program has received countless awards and has come to be recognized as a mainstay crime prevention initiative. 

Kenora Circus Program

“Thank you for bringing circus kids to Evergreen School. You taught me to never say ‘I can’t’ so I kept going and now I am really good at flower sticks and I am really proud!!! It helped me build my self confidence and now I never say ‘I can’t’ even in math and other school work.” (anonymous grade 6 student)

The Kenora group was successful in bringing the C.A.M.P. Circus program to their community in 2004 with funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and in partnership with Triple P.L.A.Y. (Positive Leisure Activities for Youth) and other local children’s service organizations.

The week-long event enrolled 126 youth and received rave reviews from the participants, parents, educators, and professionals involved with the youth. When the circus left town, the equipment stayed in Kenora and the ball was now in the community’s court.

Over the ensuing years, the Kenora C.A.M.P. Circus program evolved with input from the Kenora Association of Community Living and the Lake of the Woods Child Development Centre (now known as Firefly). What evolved from this partnership was the following founding principles: 

  • Use a holistic, developmental enrichment approach to improve social skills, emotional, psychological, self-esteem, fine and gross motor skills, physical health, and well-being.
  • Develop a child-centred, play-learning medium that acts as an alternative to the traditional medical model of service delivery.
  • Make learning-development through laughter and play the heart of the program;
  • Bring the adults/professionals to the children who participate in the play-learning milieu;
  • Encourage professionals to integrate their work into this play-learning medium (recreation therapy, occupational therapy, children’s mental health, etc.).
  • Focus on developing self-worth by enhancing personal competencies and self-esteem (‘I can attitude’).
  • Recognize that children with developmental challenges and/or histories of trauma and loss desperately need opportunities to fulfill valued social roles to help them write new chapters in their lives. The circus participant says, “Hey look at me, look at what I can do, I’m a plate spinner, a juggler, a unicycler, etc.
  • Be inclusive – open to all children and youth in the community but slanted to those who have the greatest need.

Youth who are not drawn to typical stick and ball sports can be physically active and not have to worry about winning or losing. There is no score board in circus as everybody wins. Youth become recognized and validated for their new skills and emerging competencies and become the stars of the school or class when ordinarily they would be the kid sitting at the end of the bench.

The program initially introduces a variety of activities such as hula hoop, Diablo, juggling, stilt walking, plate spinning, unicycle, etc. In time, the youth begins to gravitate to one or more skills that they become passionate about and set about mastering. They are encouraged to pursue this passion and quickly adopt the cardinal rule – ‘it’s not how many times you drop the ball that counts, it’s how many times you pick it up’ that makes the difference in all learning.

More recently the circus program was offered in 2012 to a grade 8 class at Evergreen Public School. Multiple suspensions, low attendance, and behavioural issues were preventing these students from being successful in their studies. Their teacher was desperate and supportive of trying the Kenora Circus program for an eight-week trial period. Students were eager to participate and worked hard to master the skills and put in a final performance for their school and the community stakeholders. The results were exceptional with major improvements in students’ school attendance, attitude, and performance. The students were proud of their newly acquired skills, had something to be proud of, and felt they were a part of the student body as a whole. They left their final school year with positive momentum as they transitioned into high school.

Given the success, and at the request of school officials, a 12-week pilot project was more formally introduced at the beginning of the fall 2013 term at Evergreen school for a selected grade 6 class. This was offered on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. as school officials indicated attendance was an issue. Students completed pre- and post-screening questionnaires.

During the program, students were videotaped and some were interviewed about their experiences. The program culminated in a performance for their parents and classmates during the school’s annual winter carnival. Rooke Pitura, the program leader, indicated that four participants with high anxiety didn’t even lift their eyes from their desks when he came into the classroom on the first day. Pitura marvels at the change these young people went through over three months. The same withdrawn students took control of the microphone and confidently spoke to the audience at the final performance. School administration has seen an improvement in the students’ mental health, attendance, and grades, and reduced incidences of disruptive behaviour.
Pitura and colleague Jen Reimer are collating the information for a final evaluation report.

For more information on the Kenora C.A.M.P. Circus program, contact Rooke Pitura at rpitura [at] creightoyouth [dot] com or Jack Martin at jmartin [at] creightonyouth [dot] com.

Author: Kim Karioja