Fire twirling and juggling clubs on unicycles may seem to have little to do with social work.

The link, however, is stronger than most may think, as Mr Jay Che, 35, discovered when he chanced upon the concept of "social circus", which uses circus arts to help people such as at-risk youth learn life skills.

His first encounter with social circus was in 2001 while he was interning at the Tampines Family Service Centre as part of his social work course at the National University of Singapore.

The centre had a collaboration with Cirque du Monde - French for Circus of the World - the social action arm of renowned Canadian circus troupe Cirque du Soleil.

Intrigued by the concept, Mr Che went on training trips in the next few years to Australia, sponsored by Cirque du Monde.

In 2006, he quit his job as a social worker and set up social enterprise Circus in Motion, which conducts workshops for at-risk youth and teaches life skills such as perseverance and building one's self-esteem through circus arts.

"One of the beautiful things about a circus is that, for people who are afraid of performing on a stage, they can hide behind the circus prop and still do the act.

"It helps to break down many barriers for these youth-at-risk who generally do not have the opportunity to perform on stage," said Mr Che, who faced disciplinary issues and spent most of his time away from his one-room flat during his primary and secondary school days.

His group has so far worked with more than 5,000 children and youth in Singapore and abroad.

They include at-risk youth at children's homes, the intellectually disabled at special needs schools and non-academically inclined students.

The group - which has four full-time and six part-time instructors - has performed at events such as the Social Enterprise Carnival at the DBS Marina Regatta this year.

It is also a nominee for this year's President's Challenge Social Enterprise Award.

The winners will be announced next Friday.

But it was tough when Mr Che first started the group.

While the concept was already well established in places such as South America and Australia, it was almost unheard of in Singapore then.

"People did not know what this is all about, and they were not open to using circus as an intervention tool," said Mr Che, who specialises in contact juggling - which involves moving objects around in contact with the body without tossing them into the air.

He had little help.

"It was a one-man show. I was the driver, the clerk... the instructor."

Getting funding support is also difficult as circus is not recognised as a sport or an art.

The group gets its income from charging for workshops and performances.

It can earn more than $2,000 if the whole group performs, or about $300 for a solo performance.

But doors of opportunity slowly opened along the way as more people got to know about social circus.

In 2009, he hired the team's second full-time instructor. Except for Mr Che, the rest of the instructors were previously beneficiaries of the group.

One instructor, Mr Edward Chua, 22, used to have low self-esteem and was addicted to computer games.

This changed when he took an interest in circus skills.

He now specialises in the diabolo (or Chinese yoyo) and gains much satisfaction from teaching young people.

"I see myself in them, and I see the changes in them."

Said Mr Che of his team: "I'm proud of them... especially when they themselves were in the programme, and now they've come full circle to be instructors."