Causes

Impacting lives by clowning around

Mr Edward Chua (far left), who specialises in hat juggling, with Mr Benjamin Teo (centre), whose forte is juggling, and Mr Firdaus Ayoob Piperdy, the roue cyr (cyr wheel) specialist. Circus In Motion founder Jay Che, under whose guidance Mr Teo, Mr C
Mr Edward Chua (far left), who specialises in hat juggling, with Mr Benjamin Teo (centre), whose forte is juggling, and Mr Firdaus Ayoob Piperdy, the roue cyr (cyr wheel) specialist.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Mr Edward Chua (far left), who specialises in hat juggling, with Mr Benjamin Teo (centre), whose forte is juggling, and Mr Firdaus Ayoob Piperdy, the roue cyr (cyr wheel) specialist. Circus In Motion founder Jay Che, under whose guidance Mr Teo, Mr C
Circus In Motion founder Jay Che, under whose guidance Mr Teo, Mr Chua and Mr Firdaus developed a deep interest in circus arts - and practising the various tricks kept them out of trouble.ST FILE PHOTO

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who go out of their way to meet those needs. This is the latest in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times is spotlighting.

Mastering a circus act does more than just entertain - it can also transform lives.

Mr Benjamin Teo is a firm believer of that. The 26-year-old is a full-time instructor at Circus In Motion, a social enterprise that empowers youth-at-risk and children with special needs through workshops that teach them circus acts.

About 12 years ago, he was on the receiving end of the programme.

"As both of my parents were working, I was a typical latchkey kid. So instead of going home after school, I would walk around and get into trouble," said Mr Teo. For instance, the bored teenager would shoplift.

But all that changed in Secondary 2 when the East Spring Secondary School student learnt to juggle at an after-school workshop conducted by Circus In Motion.

There, he met schoolmates-turned-instructors Edward Chua and Firdaus Ayoob Piperdy, now both also 26.

Under the guidance of Mr Jay Che, 39, the founder of Circus in Motion, the trio developed a deep interest in circus arts - and practising the various tricks kept them out of trouble.

For Mr Chua, picking up tricks on a diabolo - an hourglass-shaped circus prop that evolved from the Chinese yo-yo - helped him break out of his gaming addiction. "After joining the programme, I didn't stay up late to game any more," he said.

Mr Firdaus started his circus journey with Poi - an act that involves swinging weights in a variety of patterns - which served as an outlet for him to get through the "bouts of depression" he used to experience.

Even after the school programme ended, they continued training outside of school with Mr Che and several other schoolmates at a void deck in Kallang.

Through the training sessions, they developed self-confidence and qualities such as patience and focus.

Said Mr Firdaus: "Previously, I was very introverted but the training helped build my self-esteem."

Mr Teo added that following his participation in the after-school activity, his secondary school teachers felt that his performance in school became more consistent and he could focus better in class.

Now, Circus In Motion reaches out to help students just like the trio's past selves.

It was set up in 2006 by Mr Che, who was previously a social worker. Circus In Motion has worked with more than 9,000 children and youth in Singapore and abroad.

Currently, schools such as Hua Yi and Peicai Secondary engage the organisation to conduct circus workshops under the Ministry of Education's Time-out Programme, which aims to reduce the attrition rate of students-at-risk dropping out of school.

Circus in Motion does so by helping students explore their hidden strengths in the performance art.

Mr Chua, who was formerly from the Normal (Technical) stream, said: "I know how it feels to be in their position; most people think that we're useless."

However, he added that picking up circus skills allows the students to "learn something new and become good at it".

During the sessions, Mr Chua encouraged them by sharing his own experiences, such as how it took a year for him to pick up juggling while watching Mr Teo become proficient at the skill faster than he did. However, Mr Chua did not give up.

The instructors have seen students improve in the academic arena, from attending school just one or two days a week, to doing so regularly.

"We also witness a general improvement in behaviour where they wouldn't throw tantrums any more and learn how to manage their anger better," said Mr Teo, who has a university degree in social work.

The social enterprise also conducts workshops for children with special needs from schools such as Metta School, which caters to students with mild intellectual disabilities or mild autism spectrum disorders, and Pathlight School, an autism-focused school.

"A lot of patience is needed and you have to know your skills well enough to break them down into the fine details to teach them," said Mr Firdaus.

Yet, the sense of satisfaction that the team gets is immense.

Mr Teo, whose favourite performance thus far was one put up by pupils from Bukit Timah Primary School for ice cream shop Ben & Jerry's 313@Somerset flagship outlet opening in 2015, said: "It makes us feel very happy when the students feel proud of the show they have put up and when the crowd likes it."

Said Mr Firdaus: "I hope that the kids overcome whatever issues they are facing at the moment and that somehow this programme will help them overcome these issues, in one way or another."

Circus in Motion also welcomes members of the public to its office every Tuesday from 7pm to 9.30pm, where the team members will impart their circus skills to anyone willing to learn.

Circus enthusiasts are also invited to come and share what they know.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Impacting lives by clowning around'. Print Edition | Subscribe