AYCO/ACE is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit with a volunteer board of directors.
Jen Agans, Ph.D.
Jen Agans, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management at the Pennsylvania State University, where she studies youth development through recreation. She grew up in youth circus, performing with the Hilltop Circus and Flying Gravity Circus in middle and high school, touring with Circus Smirkus in 2004, and coaching at the Silver Lining Circus Camp from 2005 to 2009 before serving as camp director from 2010 to 2014. Jen has been a member of AYCO since 2001, only missed one AYCO festival (2007), and has been bringing her research and evaluation perspective to AYCO/ACE conferences since 2010.
Lyra Gray is the owner and director of Aerotique, a circus school in Columbus, Ohio. She has a master’s degree in special education and spent many years as a special education teacher in the public school systems. She has over 20 years of experience in teaching, leading and creating youth programming in a variety of sports and disciplines and is an advocate for empowering youth populations through movement-based programming. Her teaching experience bridges a variety of aerial, circus, and other sports and encompasses levels from youth beginner to competitive and adult learning. Lyra is passionate about making Circus Arts accessible to everyone and loves to teach new students and introduce her community to the wonderful world of circus.
Upon graduating from college where he competed as a gymnast, Jens fell in love with the circus and spent 19 years as a performing artist. His specialties were aerial roman rings, comedy chairbalancing, and rola bola. He performed on four different continents in shows that ranged from small (the five-person Royal Lichtenstein Circus) to huge (multiple-ring Shrine circuses in the US and Canada) and ran the stylistic spectrum from traditional (Vidbel Family Circus and others) to contemporary (San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus). Jens then changed course and taught math for 14 years in public high schools in Phoenix, Arizona. In 2015 Jens combined his previous two careers and became a circus educator by starting Phoenix Youth Circus Arts, a social circus program that produces after-school circus clubs, summer camps and special events throughout the city.
Renee Bell Werge
Renee Bell Werge hails from Philadelphia but has called Chicago home since 1999. She holds two Master’s degrees, the first in animal science and the second in elementary education. Before coming on board as CircEsteem’s Program Director, Renee was a Youth Development Educator with University of Illinois Extension, a 7th grade science and english teacher in Chicago Public Schools and a Volunteer Manager at Communities In Schools of Chicago. Renee is passionate about social circus and its focus on social and emotional competency using circus as a vehicle for learning lifelong skills. She has 2 awesome kids who have been bitten hard by the circus bug!
Anne Boock Miller, Ph. D.
Anne Boock Miller, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and the founder/artistic director of Suspend, a circus arts studio in Louisville, KY. She has particular interests in neurodevelopmentally appropriate and adaptive circus education, and the use of circus and aerial dance as a tool for therapeutic and cultural change.
Kristina Wicke has spent her entire adult career supporting creativity and play in some form or fashion. Early on, she was introduced to a rag-tag bunch of juggler/vaudevillians called The Flying Karamazov Brothers; and she toured the world with them as their Production Manager collecting great stories, crazy experiences, life-long friends and a multitude of bad puns! In 2011, she was part of the producing team that brought the Tony Award nominated musical, A Christmas Story, to Broadway, further solidifying her belief that collaboration, celebration, and trust are vital to success.
Kristina brings a host of non-profit leadership skills to the board of AYCO/ACE through her more than 20 years working in the Seattle theatre community, and service as Executive Director of SANCA. She is delighted to combine her passion for youth development, physical literacy, performance, play, and equity to an institution devoted to all of those things!
Since discovering her love for teaching as a “gymnastics coach” to her neighbors at 7 years old, Marisa Diamond has filled a wide range of professional teaching roles with youth and adults since 2012. Marisa has worked as a circus performer, actor, director, and stage manager across the country, as well as teaching circus internationally. She is the co-founder of Diamond Family Circus, an ACE recognized circus performance & education company. Marisa is a graduate of the University of Michigan (BFA), where she developed her one-woman show, “*insert sociopolitically-aware title here*,” and built her thesis project focused on circus education. Marisa has been attending AYCO festivals and ACE Ed Cons since 2010, and previously served as the first and only youth on the AYCO Events Committee. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she created and directed the first Circus International Film Festival.
Bio coming soon!
Carrie Heller, M.S.W., is the Founder and Director of the Circus Arts Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Carrie fell in love with circus arts as a child in 1972 while learning from the FSU Flying High Circus performers and has been happily flying through the air ever since. She has been involved with the American Youth Circus Organization since its inception and is the author of the industry’s first The Aerial Circus Training and Safety Manual. Melding together her background as a social worker, play therapist, and circus artist, Carrie served as a Trainer of Trainers for Cirque Du Monde, a Cirque Du Soleil Outreach Program that uses circus arts to help youth around the world. She is passionate about passing on her experience in both adaptive and typically developing circus arts through her trainings. In conjunction with Dr. Lauren Taglialatela Carrie is the co-author of the April 2018 published article entitled: Circus Arts Therapy® fitness and play therapy program shows positive clinical results which appears in the International Journal of Play Therapy (published by the American Psychological Association). Carrie is both excited and honored to be serving on the AYCO Board of Directors.
Dr Emily Scherb earned her Doctorate In Physical Therapy from Washington University in St. Louis. She has been a practicing circus artist for over thirty years and has worked as an aerial and flying trapeze instructor across the US. As founder and owner of The Circus Doc, Dr. Scherb has presented continuing education programming for circus educators and healthcare professionals on the unique physical demands and challenges of working with circus artists. Her bestselling book Applied Anatomy of Aerial Arts was the first to address the biomechanics and psychical demands involved in circus training. Dr. Scherb lives in Seattle, WA where she owns Pure Motion Physical Therapy. Her clinic is dedicated to working with professional and recreational circus artists. As a board member of Seattle Dance and Performing Arts Medicine, she participates in free healthcare clinics for performing arts in the Pacific Northwest and educational programming to expand knowledge around performing arts medicine.
Updated September 2022
Board Member in Memoriam: Rick Davis
A founding member of AYCO, Rick’s 30 year career took him to Ringling Brothers Circus, Broadway, DisneyWorld, The White House, and on tours of 15 countries. He was the author of 3 books, and conducted circus school residencies for Circus Smirkus. He was also the founder of SchoolShows.com, the largest directory of school assembly performers.
Founder’s Statement: Kevin O’Keefe
“AYCO started out as a small dream in my heart. I knew what I did as the director of Circus Minimus and CircusYoga worked in my communities, but longed for connections to others and to see the national landscape of circus. An initial query branched out to those I knew, and we became a small community of teachers and artists for a few years. The first festival in 1999 was designed by my wife Erin Maile O’Keefe. We floated it on our credit card at Sailor Circus in Sarasota FL. Our organization placed itself firmly on the cultural map with our 2nd festival at Circus Juventas in Minnesota. Since then we have grown by leaps and bounds by finding strength in diversity and community. Even our dreams are not our own in the circus. We must share everything.”