How does a guy raised in Toledo, Ohio, who studied criminal justice at Ohio State, end up teaching circus tricks to Father Joe Maier’s street kids in Klong Toey? It’s a long story.

As a boy, Steve Groh took rudimentary gymnastics, finding it was something he could excel at. “I really enjoyed it,” he says, “because gymnastics, like skateboarding and wrestling — other sports I enjoyed — was an individual sport. The more you practised, and the more time you put in, the more you would succeed.” He soon joined an after-school troupe called the Mini-Americans, who performed gymnastics and unicycle routines at neighbourhood malls and at half-time during sporting events. Steve’s parents then sent him to a gymnastics club in Toledo, and he started to compete. At the same time, he discovered springboard diving. “The tricks were the same,” he recalls, “but the mechanics were a little different. I found that gymnastics was good training for diving, and vice versa.”   

But why the interest in helping underprivileged kids? Steve’s grandfather was a common pleas court judge; his uncle and older sister are lawyers; and his younger sister investigates child abuse cases for the Department of Social Welfare in Toronto, Ontario. Through college he worked as a counsellor at juvenile hall, and then he worked at a drug and alcohol treatment centre for kids. Back his trail here was a complicated one. In the mid-1980s, Steve took a job with Sea World in Aurora, Ohio, as a high diver. This is where, as veteran performers took him under their wing, he first learned about stage presence and how to relate to people.

At the end of the season, Steve took the bonus he earned from Sea World and went skiing in Colorado. There, he met a couple of guys who told him that Club Med had a circus. He ended up rushing to the nearest pay phone and calling the guy ran the Club Med circuses. He yelled into the phone, “I’ve never seen a trapeze in my life, but I’ll work like a dog.”  A day later, Steve was offered a job in Port Lucie, Florida, and he followed that up, a couple of months later, with a stint in Ixtapa, Mexico.
So began a yo-yo routine, with Steve working between the high-dive company and Club Med. He dived in a show in Belgium, then worked for Club Med for a season in St Lucia, the West Indies. In January of 1990, the high-dive company called again, asking whether he’d like to go to Thailand to work at Safari World. The dive show, originally scheduled to run for six months, was eventually extended to three years. Then, while Steve and his fellow acrobats were performing in this show, they planned the water-ski show, which lasted another three years. Before that ended, they planned the James Bond stunt show (“Spy Wars’), which is still going, but which now features only Thai performers because, when the Thai baht was devalued in 1997, the company could no longer afford to pay foreign performers.     
So Steve then headed to Taoyvan, Taiwan, where he helped design, from concept to production, a Wild West/cowboy stunt show at Leo Foo Village. This took about six months, and then he performed in the show for another six months. He followed that with a brief stint as a pirate in a high dive in southern Taiwan but, when that didn’t work out, he ended up in Taipei at the Taipei American School as the high-school gymnastics coach.

Steve first met Father Joe in 1999, when he came back to Thailand for a visit with Kay, his Taiwanese girlfriend. Steve’s friend Geoff Penn was water-skiing down the Chao Phraya behind a longtail boat, and Steve was his scuba safety. BarterCard sponsored the event, with the money raised going to Father Joe Maier’s Human Development Centre (HDC). Ten days later, Steve entered the first Vertical Marathon at Bangkok’s Banyan Tree, where he bumped into Father Joe again (his kids were there performing a song-and-dance routine), and the two discussed the idea of Steve setting up a Youth Circus programme with Father Joe’s kids.

Steve returned to Taiwan for one more year, but eventually got fed up with life there, so he called Father Joe and arranged to come back here and start teaching the kids. Since most of them attended school, however, there wasn’t much for Steve to do in the daytime, and he got a job first teaching English and then physical education. In the meantime, he’d started to teach Father Joe’s kids juggling, pyramids, unicycling and rudimentary gymnastics, including forward rolls, cartwheels, and back handsprings. Those who were especially keen or proficient joined the Mercy Centre Circus, named for the building where the Human Development Centre operates.

“The idea behind the circus,” Steve says, “is to stimulate interest by giving the kids an opportunity to learn acrobatics, hand balancing, contortion, juggling, wire walking, clowning and anything in the air, whether upside down, backwards or otherwise humanly possible.”

Along the way, Steve learned that Canada’s world-renowned Cirque de Soleil has a programme called Cirque de Monde, where 1 percent of the circus’s income is donated to social action, targeting “kids at risk”. Steve informed them of what he was doing with the HDC, and they sent him to Singapore to work with youth at risk there. They have also sent him to trainers’ conferences in Australia where he shared and learned from other trainers’ experiences.

In 2002, Steve was doing stunts for Jackie Chan’s Medallion, which was being filmed in Thailand. One day Steve approached Jackie and said in Mandarin that he would forfeit three days pay if the Mercy Circus could perform in front of Mr Chan. Jackie agreed, and the kids performed for him at Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel. When the show was over, Jackie sang some songs, performed some acrobatics with the kids, and conducted a auction for Father Joe, literally selling, aside from some movie memorabilia, the watch he was wearing and the jacket off his back.

But Steve is doing more than just teaching Father Joe’s kids circus tricks. In 2001, Steve started entering them in adventure races. The first race they competed in was the Action Asia Challenge, through Kanchanaburi’s Hellfire Pass. National Geographic paid their entrance fee, while Action Asia magazine paid for their hotel accommodation and Nike provided their footwear. Seventy-two teams entered, and fifty finished. This was a timed event, with activities that included mountain biking, rappelling, jungle trekking, river swimming, kayaking, orienteering and negotiating an obstacle course. Since, the kids have competed in similar events in Hua Hin and at the Erawan Falls, and have competed in mini-marathons, the Bangkok Marathon, the Channel 3 marathon and the Vertical Marathon.

Steve’s kids have so far performed stunts in Satree Lex 2, Fan Chun, The Medallion and Khun Krabi. The skills they are learning are invaluable and, if they can turn them into work as stunt performers, they will have learned a viable trade they can market for years to come.

Steve, himself, served as a stunt coordinator in Fan Chun, a stunt and scuba safety in The Medallion, and he even worked as a stunt double for Edward Furlong in American History X. He has also appeared in a number of TV shows and movies of the week.

In addition, he’s a talented acrobat and all-round performer. His repertoire includes full-body fire burns (over 1,000 to date), the flying trapeze (flying and catching), springboard diving, high diving (27 metres), skateboarding, mountain biking, stage fighting, rappelling, juggling (three different styles), gymnastics, weapons (including gunplay), unicycling (forwards, backwards and one-footed).

When asked why they like the Circus, Father Joe’s kids invariably say it’s sanuk — “fun”. But it’s more than that. They know that, despite their disadvantaged background, they’re learning skills that few other people in the country, regardless of wealth, influence and background, can master. They are the masters of their trade, and this is a source of real pride.

The problem with Steve’s kids is that, once they leave the umbrella of the Mercy Centre, few options exist for them. Some can go to work as mechanics or air-conditioner repairmen, skills they can learn through the Centre. But wouldn’t it be wonderful for them to be able to leave Mercy and go straight to work in the circus? This would provide an immediate source of both respect and income. And just remember, when we were young, didn’t we all want to run away and join the circus?           

The Human Development Centre

The Human Development Foundation, a non-denominational, community-based organization, began in 1974 with the work of Father Joe Maier and Sister Maria Chantavarodom in Klong Toey, Bangkok's largest slum. Their first project was a one baht per day kindergarten. Within the next two years, they opened Klong Toey's first outreach health clinic and a shelter for street children. Fires devastated slum neighbourhoods, sometimes two or three times a year, and the HDF helped rebuild them.

Over the past 30 years, the Foundation has initiated many projects to help the poor. When a pilot programme works in one neighbourhood, it is expanded to another, and in this way, with a staff of 250 dedicated men and women, the HDF now reaches out to friends in over 30 slum communities.

Contact information

Telephone (662) 671-5313

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Find me on...