USA TODAY - As the summer winds to a close, many young people will have spent their time working at their first job or completing an internship.
But how many can say they joined the circus?
Natasha Shatzkin can. At nearly 16, Shatzkin attended her third American Youth Circus Organization festival recently, honing her juggling and tightrope skills.
While that may sound like fun, it hardly prepares her for the workplace, does it?
"The circus and the festival is a lot about networking," says Shatzkin, who won the youth leadership award this year. "I get to see and meet a lot of people I wouldn't otherwise."
The five-day festival had participants from 30 states, three countries and 50 circus communities, says Amy Cohen, executive director of the circus organization. Young people had more than 150 workshops to choose from, and the diversity is a big plus for developing future leaders.
"It's such a unifying experience," Cohen says. "Diversity and inclusion is what a circus is all about."
The camp's instructors, who donate their time, have professional circus experience and bring their unique perspectives to the young participants, Cohen says. The organization has been around for about 15 years and offers those ages 21 and younger instruction in contortion, clowning, puppetry and tumbling, to name a few skills.
"Circuses are a hybrid of art and sport," Cohen says. "Some of our instructors have a more artistic approach while others are more athletic. But what our young people learn is that it's all about developing a skill."
"Historically, if you ran away from home to join the circus, you would be welcome if you were willing to work hard," she says. "We still teach them about the importance of working hard to develop a skill."
Shatzkin agrees. As someone who not only participates but also takes the time to coach and teach younger participants, she finds that she is motivated to work hard at anything she takes on and is learning about coaching others.
"What I love about the circus is that no one asks me any of these questions about what I want to be when I grow up. I can just relax," Shatzkin says.
That's not to say the circus is always a barrel of laughs.
"Mostly, there is a great sense of community and collaboration, and you have to work with a lot of people," she said. "You may not always like them all, but you learn to find a way to work together. It's funny how many skills you get from the circus."
The circus helps the young people develop their self-esteem and provide a creative outlet, Cohen says. The American Youth Circus Organization estimates that about 8,000 youth are practicing circus skills regularly, the group thinks it has not yet reached another 2,000 young performers.
"Some of the (festival goers) come from popular circus towns, but others come from places where the circus may be seen as an odd thing," Cohen says. "Suddenly, they come to the festival and they feel included. It empowers them because it is an affirmation that there are other people like them."
Shatzkin says she has been participating in circus activities since she was about 10, and doesn't plan to stop any time soon. While she doesn't know if she will one day become a professional circus entertainer, she does know that the circus has made a permanent impact on her life.
"I think I've learned a lot about how to be a better leader, and I think I've learned more about what I can do," she says. "And, I can juggle. I always be able to do that, no matter what."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)