BENTON HARBOR — Almost 30 local children will spin plates, walk on tight ropes and juggle scarves today during a special circus performance in Benton Harbor.

They’ve been practicing their acts all week under the direction of instructors from CircEsteem Chicago and Chuck Bruberman, a former Chicago magician who retired to Allegan.

The public is invited to the show, which will be at 4 p.m. at 259 Water St. Organizers said performers in colorful costumes will be at the corner of Water and 5th streets to direct people to the event.

But don’t tell the children that learning circus acts is just a trick to get them to the summer camp, which is sponsored by GhostLight Theatre in Benton Harbor.

Les Rorick, lead teacher, said CircEsteem targets at-risk and underserved youth to help them develop personally and to build leadership skills. He said they focus on building teamwork and trust with the youth.

“We do it through challenging exercises,” he said. “When they do something they are afraid of, they say, ‘Wow, I thought I would never be able to do this.’”

Posters around the room helped the youth focus on several principles, including “Respect Ourselves and Others,” “Cultivate Team Awesome,” “Keep the Peace” and “Have Fun.”

This is the first of two weeks of CircEsteem summer camp for children between the ages of 6 and 16, said Marty Hesse, executive director of GhostLight Theatre. 

She said there is room for more budding entertainers in next week’s summer camp. For more information, go to www.ghostlightbh.com and click on “Summer Camp.” The link to register for the camp is on that page. For more information, email info@GhostLightBH.com or call Dottie at 480-540-2089.

Hesse used to live in Chicago, where CircEsteem has worked with underprivileged youth for 19 years. This is the first time CircEsteem has taught its brand of social circus programming outside of Chicago, she said.

Performing arts was removed from public schools in Chicago for budget reasons, so CircEsteem started an after-school program to fill the gap.

“It’s esteem building for inner city kids,” she said. 

And it works. Hesse said statistics show that the youth who participate in CircEsteem Chicago have fewer behavior problems, lower truancy rates and higher graduation rates.

“The children have to show they have finished their homework before they can touch any of the equipment,” she said. “It becomes a family for these kids.”

Hesse said many inner city schools across the country have removed performing arts due to budget cuts. But that leaves many children uninspired. She said children draw inspiration from the arts, whether they play an instrument or dance or paint.

She said GhostLight plans to start its own after school program this fall called CircEsteem Michigan. 

Many of the youth taking part in the first week are from the Benton Harbor Boys & Girls Club. Ashley Williams, instructor with the club, said she has seen the program build confidence in the participants, including her own 6-year-old daughter, Skye Williams.

“It’s something new, and they talk about it when they get home,” she said.

But they don’t just talk about the circus acts. She said they talk about the principles.

“They have this cool way they teach the principles,” Williams said. “They have hand gestures with the principles so it’s easier for the kids to remember them.”

She said the first thing the youth were taught about was the principles.

“When you give kids rules and expectations, they know what lines not to cross,” she said.

Hesse said many of the children from the first week were sponsored by local organizations, including the Benton Harbor Education Foundation, the Benton Harbor Sunrise Rotary and the Lakeshore Rotary.

The cost to attend is $250, which includes lunch, snacks and class time from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege