I only cry watching a certain type of movie. It’s when that special someone with the renegade spirit overcomes tremendous adversity to succeed beyond the wildest dreams other mere mortals. I can’t stop it, the tears just flow from my eyes as I witness heroic acts: David overcoming Goliath, Joan of Arc leading the French rebellion, Ghandi on a hunger strike or land mine victims walking again for the first time. I’m a great believer in the old adage that “if you work hard or set your mind to something, you can do anything you want.” Out of all the young people I have worked with in the HICCUP circus Shannon Hassard was perhaps our, all time, best example of this.
Mark Glick, my fellow grant writer, wrote about Shannon in 2001 , “Over the years, the HICCUP group of instructors expanded to include internationally renown circus arts educators and performers as well as talented students who have come up through the ranks of HICCUP Circus classes. Amongst the roster of teachers and performers was the talented Shannon Hassard, a twenty-five year old native Hawaiian who has overcome great odds to become a juggler and unicyclist and a permanent employee of the Hiccup Circus. His seemingly boundless drive, determination and unbridled passion for life should serve as an inspiration for Hawaiian’s of all ages.”
“Born on Oahu with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Shannon was a client of the Casey Family Foundation and entrusted to foster care at an early age. He lived with foster parents near Waimanalo until the age of seven then moved to Kona and later Mountain View on the Big Island of Hawaii with new foster parents. Shannon’s disabilities caused his doctors, teachers and counselors to constantly tell him that there were severe limits to what he could expect to achieve in life.”
“In 1992 the HICCUP Circus performed at a Casey Family picnic. Shannon stood entranced as Graham Ellis, the Hiccup Circus director, chose his sister as his volunteer in the show. This was the beginning of the realization of another of his dreams since from the age of six he had been trying to learn to juggle. Shannon visualised himself on stage entertaining the audience with his juggling skills but he had to wait a few more years for the manifestation of this goal.”
“Relegated to special education classes for the whole of his school life Shannon was frustrated with the low expectations thrust upon him by others. He was bursting with a mother lode of talent and ambition that remained largely unnoticed until he became the only member of his seven siblings to graduate from High School.“
“After Shannon was introduced to three foster brothers who are all musicians he studied and practiced hard and learned how to play the drums. He went on to play with a few other island musicians and had the ambition to become a professional drummer in a heavy metal band.”
Upon leaving school Shannon had very limited options for work due to his disabilities and received training at the Arc of Hilo to become a yard maintenance worker. At age 21, Shannon saw a newspaper advertisement that would change his life. The HICCUP Circus was offering free juggling lessons. Shannon has never lacked in courage and went to the next class with a girlfriend in tow. For the next year Shannon came regularly once a week to circus classes and and made some good new friends.
Shannon found an easy rapport with Graham who was impressed with Shannon’s enthusiasm and progress and invited him to participate in a parade with the HICCUP Circus. After that, Shannon became a regular at the HICCUP classes in Paradise Park where he began to help teaching children to juggle and to practice his own performance routine. Focusing and working hard he accomplished his goal of juggling clubs and rings and started to learn fire torches and other circus skills.
Soon Shannon achieved his other performance arts goal of being invited to perform for the HICCUP Circus. He joined the troupe for shows at birthday parties and community events and even participated in a talent show in Honoka’a. Shannon fitted in happily among the group and routinely got calls from Graham asking “We’re doing a HICCUP show, can you come along?”
As a result of his achievements, particularly his excellence in circus arts, Shannon’s confidence grew each day and he steadily lost his shyness. Publicly he removed any lingering doubts anyone might have about his abilities. He became a living testimony to the folly of setting low expectations and continued to be driven by the desire to prove all the naysayers wrong.”
Being a circus program director for over thirty years I’ve witnessed how challenging it is for most individuals, both adults and children, to stand in front of an audience either to perform in group routines or with a solo act. This commonly felt source of fear of being vulnerable on stage with everyone looking at you is typically more difficult for a person with physical disabilities to overcome – but Shannon did it – majestically.
As he participated in weekly training workshops I began to notice his wonderful aptitude for helping other students especially young children, he has remarkable patience and was not shy about sharing his knowledge. As a student, teacher and performer Shannon grew to be competent and supportive. The climax of his circus career was participating in our 2004/5 community shows where he joined in our group act juggling machetes and sickles as well as fire torches. From June 2001 to Dec 2002 I hired Shannon as a land maintenance worker at Bellyacres and as the HICCUP van driver. He drove both of our 15 seater passenger vans very safely transporting children and equipment to our many classes and shows – but he was never as enthusiastic mowing or weed whacking. Shannon had gained some experience as a landscaper with the Arc of Hilo but what he had always really wanted to do was become a professional driver.
When Shannon was ready to take the plunge and apply for his dream job I wrote him a reference. “I have known Shannon and his family for more than six years. He has been an active participant in our Hiccup Circus in many different ways. He first started as an enthusiastic juggler and learned very fast. He is able to concentrate and focus intensely when he wants to accomplish a goal. I have no hesitation in recommending Shannon as a trustworthy and diligent worker with the potential to become a very valued member of staff for I know from experience that Shannon will likely achieve whatever he sets out to do.” Shannon got that job with Dollar Car rental and now drives cars for a living.
By 2016 both Shannon’s foster parents passed away so he had to find his own place, living independently. He misses his parents and keeps flowers on their graves. Sometimes he gets really lonely. Where’s that special lady for Shannon? He deserves a good one.
At my farewell party, before leaving Hawaii, I had a special moment with my renegade friend acknowledging his amazing life journey. I’m far from Hawaii now but we keep in touch and I hope we always will. Hear that Shannon – you rock!
Shannon’s comment: “Wow! I wasn’t really expecting this but thanks so much. I had a blast being part of the HICCUP circus. Thanks for turning me on to the Who & Pink Floyd and taking me to my very first Big Rock concert in Waikoloa back in 2001. I’ll never forget that.”