Atlanta, GA – Sally just aced a new trick on the trapeze - the bird hang. At 58, she says she's the oldest student in her circus arts fitness class and has been coming since June. She says she loves the physical challenge, the comraderie, and something else:
"I would say there's a kind of sense of confidence- like if I can do something like that on the trapeze, then when I get into scary situation I can handle it."
Building self-esteem may be a bonus for Sally and others in her class, but it's the backbone of Carrie Heller's Circus Arts Therapy program.
As an experienced Circus Artist and a Licensed, Clinical Social Worker, Heller blended her skills into a unique form of therapy to help kids and adults with array of emotional and physical issues.
"Really, it's a form of play therapy. And I just have circus as one of my tools."
Her tools include trapeze, circus ropes, rings, tight wires, juggling scarves, and other equipment. Heller has a lot tricks up her sleeve, and attached to her walls and ceilings, to help her students gain focus, strength, coordination, self esteem, and whatever else she says they might need.
"Very often I'll just sit down with a child, and just talk with them about their school day, maybe talk while they're juggling," says Heller. "Then we'll shift gears and walk the wire or go on the trapeze and you'll slowly see them getting physically stronger and their self esteem will grow."
51/2 year-old Bella Purdy has been coming to Circus Therapy for a little more than six weeks. Bella's has sensory processing problems and self-control issues in school.
Her parents, Tim and Kathy, who briefly questioned sending their daughter to the circus,' have been truly impressed by the progress they've seen.
"We're seeing her become a more active listener, her behavior more even keeled." says Tim Purdy. "To us been very positive experience."
Kathy Purdy says this is kind of a natural fit for Bella. "She's a performer, she enjoys being very active. And with sensory issues it really was a good fit. It gets her energy up and at the same time, Carrie's working with her, talking about feelings, how to express herself and how to stand up for herself. Kathy says even in the last couple weeks Bella started verbalizing things, "which I didn't know she had the ability to do."
Heller s worked with people of all ages, with problems ranging from eating disorders to sexual abuse, to cerebral palsy, to developmental delays. When she works with children and families she says her focus is on therapy and exercise and nutrition. "I see healing as a whole package."
Though her focus now is mainly on therapy sessions, she still teaches Circus Arts Fitness, to anyone who wants to play. Which, says Heller, and anyone whose ever taken a class would agree, is also a therapeutic experience.
"I try to create a safe, fun but really nurturing atmosphere. It's non-competetive so everyone's here just having fun and increasing their self esteem through these unusual activities, tricks and movements."
This summer, Carrie Heller will be holding her first national Circus Arts Therapy -Training program.