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Circus of Hope there to catch at-risk youth before they fall

Jules Madrigal (left), a Marble Falls physician, works on a leg catch during practice with the Circus of Hope crew. Madrigal began practicing trapeze work about three years ago but soon realized how much it could change the lives of at-risk and special-needs youth. So she and several others created Circus of Hope, which brings these arts to those youth. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

MARBLE FALLS — Jules Madrigal admitted it goes against just about every part of your brain's self-preservation mechanism.

"We all have that fear in there about heights that, you know, tries to keep us alive," she said.

But then she openly defied that warning when she edged her toes out over the ledge, bent her knees and, at the word "hep,” leapt out.

Madrigal, a Marble Falls physician, flew down and than outward as she rode the ark of a trapeze. Despite the safety harness attached to her waist and the net about 20 feet below, it still takes a bit of courage to make that initial leap.

"We say the first time is for your fear," she said later as she stood safely on the ground, "and the second is for fun."

Madrigal began practicing the trapeze, or circus arts, about three years ago after watching some people do it at a birthday party she and her daughter attended. Like many, Madrigal thought she would try it once and then cross it off her list.

"It's so amazing because when you're up there, everything else just goes away," she said. "You are just in the moment. You could have had the crappiest day, but you get up there standing on the platform, and all that goes away."

Madrigal has been coming back for three years now and even sits on the board of directors for the Circus of Hope, a nonprofit organization focused on helping special-needs or at-risk youth.

She and the other board members — including instructor James "JBird" Gibson — believe the circus arts can transform the lives of those kids. Recently, Circus of Hope hosted youth from the Helping Hands House at the Stunt Ranch in Bee Caves. The Helping Hands House provides a safe haven for youth who have been abused by adults. One of the things that program tries to do is help abused children rebuild trust in adults.

"After what they have been through, they really have no trust in adults. And can you blame them?" Madrigal said. "But out here, they start building that trust back because they have to trust us. Up there, we’re the ones who have them."

Gibson agreed that for youth with emotional or other struggles or those needing a little direction in their lives, the circus arts can help. He jumped into the arts at 25 and soon became a professional performer. Even then, Gibson wondered what it would have been like to have discovered the circus arts in his teens.

"It would have probably kept me away from some of those bad influences," he said. "I feel like we can help a lot of kids. It doesn't matter if you’re special-needs, at-risk or just a middle- (or) upper-class kid. The circus arts has something for you."

Circus of Hope even works with autistic youth.

"After jumping off a 30-foot platform, you do start looking at life differently," Madrigal said. "It's such a boost of confidence."

And it's not just for kids or Marble Falls physicians.

Madrigal isn't shy about inviting a patient or two when they ask about some of the circus arts photos hanging in her office. Donna Woodward of Kingsland is one of those patients.

"She said, 'Come out and try it," Woodward said of Madrigal's invitation.

Woodward smiled out from under her white hair infused with purple spots. "I said, 'Yeah,' but I didn't for a long time," Woodward said.

Then she took Madrigal up on the offer.

This trip was Woodward's third lesson. And as soon as she rolled off the catch net after working on a stunt suspended about 30 feet off the ground, Woodard headed back to the ladder.

"Oh, I love it," she said. "You just start looking at life and thinking, ‘Be brave.' What a great way to take on life."

Woodward will turn 73 in March.

Madrigal said the great thing about the circus arts is you start with what you are capable of doing. At first, it might not be more than swinging out across the trapeze. Then each time, the instructors and other circus arts practitioners give you a little more — another move, grip or stunt.

"Soon, you're doing these incredible things," she said. "And that just opens so many thing up to you, not only up there on the platform, but in your life.

"Can you imagine how this can transform kids' lives? The thought just gets me so excited about what we can do through Circus of Hope."

Go to for more information or to support its mission. Circus of Hope will be participating in the upcoming Amplify Austin fundraising event.

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