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Circus helps Queens youth through community service

When the Big Apple Circus comes to town, its entourage includes more than just a bunch of acrobats and animals.

The non-profit circus, which held 18 performances in Fresh Meadows in May, has lent a hand to sick, disabled and disadvantaged children across the country and often in the New York area through its community service programs.

The founders of the Big Apple Circus “wanted it to be fully grounded in the community in which it started up in,” said Philip Thurston, a Big Apple spokesman, referring to New York as the birthplace of the circus.

One effort involves aiding other area non-profits that benefit children. The circus sold all tickets for last Thursday’s show at Cunningham Park at a steep discount to the Outreach Project, a program that works with kids affected by drug- and alcohol-abusing families.

The Ridgewood-based Outreach Project turned around and sold those tickets at a higher rate to raise money and even invited Queens Borough President Helen Marshall to serve as ringmaster to help draw fans.

Others probably show up to see the show simply because the Big Apple passes out thousands of free tickets to poor and physically challenged kids through its Circus For All effort. This year more than 2,000 tickets were given to Queens youth.

Working outside of the tent, the circus trains performers to visit sick children in places such as Schneider Children’s Hospital in Nassau County, next to the Glen Oaks border. The “Clown Care Unit” entertains sick children, using humor to brighten what are often otherwise grim situations.

“We are bringing a little joy and laughter to kids that might not otherwise by able to enjoy the circus,” Thurston said.

In the circus’ Beyond the Ring program, which did not take place this year but has in many years past, performers visit schools all over the city, working to boost the self-esteem and teamwork of inner-city students by teaching circus talents. The kids, ages 8 to 18, learn skills like juggling, trapeze, clowning, and stilt walking.

The Big Apple Circus has also offered a show for deaf children using sign language and a show for blind fans, using narration and infrared headsets. After the performance, this Circus of the Senses program invites the children to talk to performers and touch the animals. Thurston said he was not sure why Circus of the Senses, like Beyond the Ring, was not offered this year.

Reach reporter Brendan Browne by e-mail at or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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