At age 4, Tim Shaw created his own little jungle gym jumping on old discarded mattresses, decades later the Chicago Boyz Acrobatic Team coach is still using those same skills.
Shaw grew up in Englewood, a place where residents are often forced to deal with violence and crime. His memory of the community was spent playing safely outside and there was a strong sense of community because “everyone knew each other.”
Shaw stayed out of trouble by staying active at nearby Sherwood Park, where he took his street tumbling skills to new heights.
“I went to the park district every single day,” he said.
After winning countless competitions throughout the city Shaw received some news that changed his life.
“I was recruited by Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey Circus to travel and perform around the world,” Shaw said with a slight grin.
In 1992 Ringling Brothers came to Chicago to recruit for one of its shows. Shaw happened to have a cousin that performed with Jesse White Tumblers who was selected for the show and he connected the circus to Shaw.
At the age of 13, Shaw had the world in his hands. Touring and performing all around the country changed his life at a very early age. Shaw describes it as an opportunity of a lifetime.
Being a young South Side kid from a low-income family, Shaw had never traveled outside the city. Shaw smirked when he said, “I never even been on a plane before.”
While on the road, Shaw was surrounded by people from all over the world. He performed with many people who came from unfamiliar cultures and learned languages he never thought in a million years he would understand.
Shaw said, he really grew up there. Shaw was in junior high school at the time and it was important to the Ringling Circus staff to have all their performers focus on their studies as well.
Tutors worked with the students on the days they didn’t travel and by the age of 15 Shaw was done with high school.
“I’m sure there are kids out there who would have traded high school to be in the circus like me,” he said laughing.
One of Shaw’s circus teammates, Gene McMillian, was one of the youngest to join the team in 1993.
“Shaw was like a big brother I looked up to him…he took me under his wing,” McMillian said.
Shaw recalls a moment he would never forget when he met his all-time favorite basketball player Magic Johnson. Who offered him words of wisdom in a lengthy conversation.
“His words were so encouraging,” Shaw said.
He felt like the luckiest tumbler ever.
In 1996 Shaw’s contract came to an end with the circus and he moved back to Chicago attended a few colleges while working with Jesse White Tumblers. He was 19-years old.
With Shaw’s experience and natural passion for tumbling it was only natural when he decided to create his own acrobatic tumbling team.
Shaw came up with the idea after working for a few years as a sales analyst.
“I hated it…I missed performing and wanted to get back into it,” he said.
Being a traveling performer taught Shaw responsibility, discipline, hard work, how to set a goals and work to achieve them. Now, Shaw works to instill these characteristics in his own team.
Shaw learned how to control his finances as a paid performer in the circus. He encourages this same knowledge with his team and thinks it’s very important for young African American men to learn these values early in their lives.
Information gets to young African Americans late, Shaw said. So he believes outside groups need to help prepare young black men and women prepare for the real world.
Shaw aims to help young men and women through each step of their life. He does this by being very involved in his team members lives.
“We are in touch with their parents, schools, and they have to provide school progress reports,” he said. “It’s a team effort…the schools, parents, and the team have to work together.”
Team member Deshawn McClinton, 17, has been a member for three and half years. He said being apart of the team has made a big impact on his life, because “the team is like a big family.”
“We are taught to keep our minds on the right track…Coach Shaw is like a father, brother, uncle…anything you consider man,” McClinton said.
Randy Porter, 19, is one of the senior members of the team with five years and counting as a member.
“Going out of town inspires me” Porter said. “When we performed at Greater America and got on the rides people there treated us like super stars that was great.”
Porter hopes to one day be a coach and have his own team.
The only challenge the team faces are with recruiting, funding, and negative influence on team members.
“Funding has hindered us on terms of growth.” Shaw said. “We only have 2 vehicles to travel…so we can only do 2 groups a show…that becomes a problem when we have 30 calls for a show in one day.”
The team membership is based heavily on how many vehicles, equipment, and the amount of uniforms needed. Funding is an important factor for recruitment.
Shaw pays a lot of respect to Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. He acted as a mentor and support system to Shaw for years.
White describes Shaw as a very caring, giving and outstanding individual.
They both share similar goals and that is to save young people’s lives.
“It’ s very uplifting to take a kid who was once a troublemaker and now they’re not because you are able to give them confidence in themselves and a sense of purpose,” Shaw said.