Community outreach takes center stage at Circus Flora for social work student

Rachel Hanks

Rachel Hanks, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in social work at UMSL, applies her interpersonal skill set to community outreach efforts at Circus Flora. (Photo by August Jennewein)

At Circus Flora, University of Missouri–St. Louis social work student Rachel Hanks facilitates community service efforts alongside a cadre of freestyle horse riders, high-flying trapeze artists and juggling clowns.

“Working with such a diverse group of performers is an incredible experience,” Hanks said. “At first thought, the circus might not seem like an obvious choice for applying a social worker’s skill set, but it’s important to understand that social work is more than case management and taking children out of unsafe situations. Sometimes more conventional intervention strategies are not enough. A child who has been abused might find it easier to express themselves through performance.”

Since 1986, Circus Flora has combined traditional circus with theater, and in recent years, the organization has developed several outreach programs. Inspired by Circus Flora’s commitment to artistry and social justice, Hanks requested an interview with the organization’s director of development and subsequently began an internship in which she assisted with event planning, promotion and donor networking. Her efforts have supported outreach programs such as Clowns on Call and Tumbling & Teamwork.

“Clowns on Call offers therapeutic clowning for kids in the hospital,” Hanks said. “Clowns go into area hospitals to provide a much-needed respite from the tedium, pain, and fear young patients experience. Another excellent resource is Tumbling & Teamwork, a circus-training program for youth who are struggling with learning or emotional disorders. Whether it’s balancing a feather, juggling three pins without dropping one or even climbing silk, there’s magic when a skill clicks and you can see the confidence on their faces.”

Hanks has invested her energy into the community and expanded her worldview and critical thinking skills with guidance from social work faculty members Kristen Wagner, Margaret Sherraden and Lois Pierce. Relying on experienced mentors and determined peers has allowed her to become a greater resource to those in need.

“I chose UMSL because of the affordability, flexible scheduling and diversity of students. My classmates come from all walks of life, and it’s both humbling and empowering to learn from people who have such a breadth of experience. Addressing the root causes of problems, calling for policy changes. And acting as an advocate and educator can be slow and frustrating, but little by little, it all adds up.”

Among Circus Flora’s various outreach efforts, Share the Circus, a program that gives out 3000 Circus Flora tickets to families in underserved communities, is especially interesting to Hanks as it promotes genuine connection and understanding through shared experience.

“A ticket to the circus might not provide everything, but it can give you and your children a magical evening,” she said. “I’ve watched so many audience members leave at the end of the show, stars and wonder in their eyes, turning to perfect strangers and saying, ‘Did you see when they ran up the wall? Did you see how fast they were riding those horses in the ring?’”

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