Vandals & Felons (some of our clients) or Circus as Social Venture = Wealth

Two days ago, our giant Jerry Springer poster (announcing his recent appearance at our fundraiser) was stolen out of the display window at Circus Mojo.  A vandal had broken the lock to get in.

Earlier that day a vandal stole a bike from the parking lot (by the way, local artists – contact us about creating a circus bike rack on commission). The police were called and the bike was found a few hours later; it was stripped of the stickers, pegs and special items on it. The kid who stole it will go to juvenile detention.

A few days earlier in the week my doorbell rang at midnight. My local police had received a call from their Ludlow department reporting that a vandal used a pellet gun to shoot the back window out of my van, which had been parked in front of the circus. I headed out to clean up the glass and to remove the circus props, sound system and gym wheel.  The following morning we’d have our circus summer camp youth arrive, delivered by their parents in the likes of Porsches and Range Rovers (a busted up van isn’t quite what I want to display, especially for this clientele). Later that day, 30 kids were happily having a pie fight and a good hosing down in the same spot where the van had been parked.

We’ve also received a letter from the water district to check if we have a leak due to a higher than normal bill (last month we had no pie fights).  Actually the neighbors are dragging the hose to their yard…. Yes, people are even stealing our water.

Making a Difference

We work with kids from detention centers (not during the summer camp sessions). What I’m about to say isn’t politically correct, but I can honestly tell you, from experience, that these kids, who are great at shooting people and stealing cars, are perfect for the circus.

The summer of 2010 we had kids going AWOL from the Children’s Home of Northern KY (CHNK, for whom we’re currently offer programming) come down to summer camp. The usual protocol is to send a police car to pick up wards of the state. NO WAY – I convinced the kid to get in my van so that I could give him a ride instead. The last thing I want heard at a participant’s dinner table is “How was camp today honey?”… “Fun but a kid was taken away in a police car…”

Last summer in the middle of the day two kids from Ludlow came, throwing batteries at the buildings when they thought everyone was gone at lunch. I ran out and yelled, using my best tractor beam voice to get them to stop and come to me. It worked: they cowered and sat at a table as I gave them old circus programs (I showed them my picture from when I was with the Ringling Bros.) to review while we waited for the Ludlow Police. I had both boys clean the parking lot and gave them each summer camp registration forms. One of the boys came each week for the balance of the summer, and in the final show Renee Harris, Circus Mojo Operations Director, smiled as I announced in the show: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ralph (name changed for anonymity). Ralph is good at throwing stuff and now he can catch too!” The entire time, Ralph was juggling four balls and smirking.

That same summer the “other boy” broke into Ludlow High School and spray-painted the halls and broke many trophies. As a result, he went to juvenile detention.

These kids need to be engaged, challenged and rewarded. THESE are the OUTCOMES of the circus.

And You Can’t Just Blame the Kids

As for adults, we work hard to give opportunities for success… Gateway Community College has a ready-to-work program for people on public aid, which requires them to work 20 hours a week and go to school to receive aid. Circus Mojo has tried three young women in this project for cleaning and other admin duties… The first “hire” was no cost to Mojo; she was all talk and didn’t show up on day two. The second ”hire” was given a cell phone; I added a new number to my plan for $10 a month so we could be in contact. She lasted a week and then disappeared; she did at least return the cell phone.

The third “read-to-work hire” was great! She even brought her 3-year-old daughter to our Circus Silly Willy classes. She was working hard I had some big cleaning and equipment to move in the theatre and she asked if I could hire her boyfriend to help… We agreed on $8/hour. For two days they cased the place, then on Friday afternoon, when we had meetings with the Miami University Social Entrepreneurship Class, they stole my DeWalt tools: sawsall, drill, sander and the copper in the theatrical lighting cords for a heroin fix. I was able to work with the Ludlow Police to secure a confession and there is a judgment against them to replace the tools but I’m not holding my breath. 

We work hard to give chances but we also stick to certain rules. For example, if you drop out of school, you won’t work for us. We had an amazing 16-year-old acrobat who has been featured in many performances and attended the prestigious School of Creative & Performing Arts in Cincinnati, but who unfortunately quit school. We let him go.  You must be in school or have a GED and pass a mandatory drug test and background check.

I asked Renee Harris, Circus Mojo’s dynamic Operations Manager, to help one particular employee to get his driver’s license. His car had a cracked windshield and so it couldn’t be used to take the test, and his parents had been jerking him around. Renee was impressed with his ability behind the wheel. She casually asked, “How did you get to be such a good driver?” The young man didn’t bat an eye as he replied, “I used to steal cars.”

This individual was hired after he passed his GED and was released from probation. He learned about circus skills as vocational training at Hillcrest Juvenile Detention Center. We’re no longer offering this due to Hillcrest’s new private management company taking over  and lack of funding. He passed his driving test but failed a drug test and isn’t working with Circus Mojo.

When the System Works, It Works Very Well

Let me repeat: we are safe while working with our diverse student population. We hired six kids from Hillcrest to work with our CircAbility class for people in wheelchairs. Catholic Residential Services approved the staff prior to classes beginning since the Hillcrest youth had no sex offenses and I, Paul Miller, was in the room with them at all times. These youth helped teach circus to the disabled. A group that may have been made fun of by these young men now became their students and a new respect was established. I couldn’t have served the 18 disabled people in class without their help. This is not grant funded our clients pay for the class and we us the funds to hire staff who learn vocational skills in detention. There are market forces and employment opportunities of society that are often ignored.

We are not a non-profit. I’m working to shift perspectives. If we’re to solve the pending social security crisis we need to make taxpayers, not lock them up. Each of these people – from the young men from Hillcrest to the young women from Gateway – COST us all enormous amounts of money. The status quo is not sustainable!

Most of the kids in detention have earned significant dollars selling drugs or stealing cars…. Few of them have every paid taxes . One of the best parts of this job is giving young people a paycheck and explaining when they ask: “What is FICA and why did $10.40 go to to it?” Answer: you’re paying for your grandmother’s retirement check.
“What is Kenton County OLF and why did they get $1.76?” Answer: Thank you. You’re paying for the parks I play in with my kids, and you’re also paying for the jail here and the streets. “Why did Ludlow get $3.71?” Answer: You’re paying for our Police and Fire Departments and the great streetscape here in the city.

Despite the Vandalism, Business is Good!

We have great press, full summer camps and corporate events, and a solid staff in development. But in circus, we say that a trick is called a TRICK for a reason. It’s tricky.

The buildings that Circus Mojo uses now were abandoned three years ago. The city just sold us two more empty and abandoned buildings for $1. This will be the site for a training center to harness the potential in marginalized people as well as retiring circus performers. Creating jobs and wealth via the circus. This last month a Sudanese Refugee one of my former students graduated from Carleton College, a Posse Foundation Scholar who now has a job in her field of choice: working in Poverty Law. Circus as social venture = wealth. Her success is replicable and is worth all the vandalism and efforts in effecting change for the marginalized via circus.

You comments appreciated!
Paul Miller



Filed under Mojo News, Our Common Humanity

2 responses to “Vandals & Felons (some of our clients) or Circus as Social Venture = Wealth

  1. Great story! Would you be interested in sharing your experience with juvenile justice programs in Australia?

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